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Sliding on the Wrong Side of the Rope

First Tracks
posted: 08/20/2003

IT'S 10 A.M. ON A TWO-FOOT DAY, AND THE MAIN MOUNTAIN IS ALREADY PLUNDERED. So you stalk ski patrol as they open new terrain. As you drop into that freshly bombed stash, you feel perfectly safe. But should you? Every year, despite near-flawless avalanche control at most U.S. resorts, inbounds runs still slide.

At Steamboat Resort in early January, a snowboarder triggered a 225-foot-long slide on Mount Werner. Then, after last chair on January 15, a five-to-seven-foot-deep slab broke loose under Snowbird's Gad 2 lift, despite routine blasting and skier compaction that day. Nobody was hurt in either event. But on January 9, a 15-foot wall of snow cascaded down a blue run at Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort (LVSSR), ripping a 13-year-old from Chair 2 and burying him. Rescue workers didn't find his body until 10 P.M. Then, on May 20, with the season over for all but a few resorts, a 1,000-foot-long wet slide tore down Arapahoe Basin's 1st Alley, killing 53-year-old David Conway. It was Colorado's first inbounds burial death since 1975.

So, what are the chances of an inbounds avalanche sweeping you down the mountain? Alarmists will tell you your life is in danger every time you hit the slopes, but statistics relay a different story. Nationwide, since 1985, only five skiers have died inbounds as a result of avalanches (from burials or slide-related trauma). Still, despite highly trained ski patrols using arsenals of military weaponry, slopes can rip naturally. And smaller slough slides can take your feet out from under you anytime. "No matter how much morning control work you do, you'll have sloughs during the day," says Squaw Valley mountain manager Jimmy King.

As the demand for steep and deep increases, resorts are heading off accidental slides by actively controlling and opening avalanche-prone terrain. Last season, Tahoe's Mt. Rose Ski Area opened the Chutes, a collection of steep, easy-to-access couloirs. Aspen began re-opening steep, slide-prone Highland Bowl in 1997. "Preseason, we have 10 to 20 patrollers plus a dozen volunteers out boot-packing for six weeks straight," says snow safety technician Brian McCall. "During the season, we toss up to 175 explosives a day."

So, should you bring your avy gear to your home hill? No. "These were freak accidents that ski patrol couldn't have foreseen," says Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Knox Williams. Nonetheless, snow safety professionals have taken them to heart. After January 9, LVSSR adopted new bombing procedures and began stringent training for rescue workers. Snowbird already makes avy-safety announcements at the top of every tram ride. And when the slope under Gad 2 gave way, Pat Shugart, Snowbird's assistant ski-patrol director, called in four scientists to analyze the slide. "We're very conservative," he says. "But we'll take the evidence from this slide. If we see those conditions again, we'll close the lift."

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