When An Avalanche Comes Calling

Friday, February 10, 2012

Writers on the Range; A service of High Country News

By Molly Loomis

On Jan. 24, an avalanche raced down the slopes of Mount Taylor, a 10,352-foot peak in Wyoming’s Teton Range. You might think this is hardly worth mentioning, since thousands of avalanches scour mountainsides in the West each winter.

The Mount Taylor avalanche, however, has launched a flurry of debate in the world of backcountry skiing — a place where there’s no admission and few enforced safety regulations. Because even though the parking lot at the base of this popular backcountry ski area was packed with cars, the slide — which turned out to be massive — had been intentionally triggered by a local mountain guide. Luckily, no one was hurt, though someone might easily have been; hundreds of skiers were in the area.

Strange as it may sound to non-skiers, intentionally triggering an avalanche is a common safety practice in backcountry skiing. In theory, it allows an experienced skier to blunt the potential danger of a future avalanche from the relative safety of the top of the slope. With this in mind, Greg Collins, who had skied Mount Taylor hundreds of times, deliberately set off the avalanche. He publicly apologized later, explaining that he never expected the slide to be as big as it was. The avalanche tumbled over 2,500 feet before plowing over a creek often crossed by skiers.

“It would have been a fatality (if anyone had been there),” David Fischel told the Jackson Hole News&Guide; he had skied down Coal Creek shortly after the slide occurred. “I hope this will be a lesson for folks who ski up there. They put people like me at risk.”

But has any lesson been learned? Comments from people have poured in from the international backcountry skiing community, and they range from outrage and anger to strong support for Collins. Critics decry Collins’ actions as selfish and irresponsible — especially considering this winter’s unpredictable snow conditions — while many of his defenders say uphill skiers bear no responsibility for the people below them. Risk, they insist, is inherent in any wilderness experience. After all, as some have pointed out, “wild” is a part of wilderness.

But does skiing in heavily used areas such as Teton Pass truly constitute an outing in the wild? And where’s the line between pursuing your own goals and ignoring the safety of other people in the neighborhood? If this had occurred in a ski resort with rules and regulations, the answers would be easy. But it happened in the backcountry on public land, where we all have equal opportunity to recreate and where the only bosses are usually ourselves.

Moreover, the Tetons aren’t the only place an event like this has occurred. Utah and Montana have had similar incidents. If it hasn’t already happened in other mountains ranges around the West, it likely will, sooner or later.

Before anyone decides to ski in the backcountry, there are lots of questions to answer, ranging from choice of equipment to current weather and snowpack conditions. Yet there seem to be few rules for acceptable behavior once we’re out there. Of course, that’s why many of us are drawn to mountain towns where we can escape into crowds of aspens, not people.

But like it or not, the woods are filling up with more and more people doing their own thing. When that is combined with unclear ethics, such as the degree to which a skier is or isn’t concerned about other skiers, I’m reminded that Americans have become extraordinarily willing to sue each other. Are we heading toward a future backcountry filled with ski cops and a fat book of rules, or will we be forced to accept reduced access?

It is ironic that for years many skiers have fought to keep snowmobiles out of popular backcountry skiing terrain, in part fearing the hazard of a snowmobile racing up a mountain to “high point” and triggering an avalanche. Now, I fear, we have brought that kind of argument into our own ranks. Are we going to return to the days of tire slashing in the Tetons, as happened at the height of the skiing-snowmobile controversy? One blogger suggested aggressive bumper stickers might be a first step: “I intentionally kick off avalanches. Skiers below beware.”

Instead, why don’t we thank the powder gods that it didn’t take a fatality to get this conversation going? All too often in an event like this, tears drown out the sounds of dialogue. Let us hope that this avalanche — which harmed no one — will wake us up to our responsibilities as backcountry skiers. Let’s remember that although we choose to ski in a wild place, we are not always alone — so let’s make sure that our fun remains as safe as we can make it.

Molly Loomis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives on the west side of Teton Pass in Victor, Idaho.