Can human judgment handle avalanches?
We’re better than ever at understanding the dangers of avalanches. So why can’t we avoid them?
Kate Siber July 20, 2015 From the HCN print edition
All morning, I’d heard the roar of sloughs rocketing down cliffs as I skied up a mountain in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Now, standing at the summit with my six friends and our two guides, I gazed over treeless sheets of white plunging to the inky ocean. A virgin slope beckoned to us. I felt uneasy — the snow was clearly unstable — but said nothing.
A skier sets off a pocket slab on the Shuksan Arm at Mount Baker, Washington. He outran this slide and no one was harmed. -Garrett Grove
I was there as a travel writer and photographer, so the group agreed that I would go first to set up my camera, accompanied by Dan, the lead guide. I shook off my nervousness and skied off, arcing turns down a mellow powder field and stopping before a knoll. Dan whizzed past me and disappeared over the bump, flanked by steeper slopes. Suddenly, a line tore across the snow, releasing a massive avalanche that crashed 700 feet down the slope, engulfing Dan in car-sized panes of broken snow that settled, slowly, into a terrifying stillness.
With the help of his inflatable airbags, Dan kept afloat and survived, unhurt. He took a few moments to collect himself, and then put his skins back on. I stood there in awe and terror, my heart racing, glad to be alive.
I don’t know whether some misjudgment or breach of professional protocol contributed to this accident. It’s exceedingly rare for a slope shy of 30 degrees to slide so dramatically. But for years, I have relived the incident, questioning my own assumptions about safety in avalanche terrain. Was it a wild fluke, a simple miscalculation, or a serious mistake made possible by complicated psychological factors? In other words, how dumb were we?
Over the last 10 years, skiers and snowboarders have swarmed the backcountry, thanks to rapidly improving equipment, new gates that allow access to untracked slopes beyond resort boundaries, and, perhaps, a culture that glorifies dangerous routes while minimizing risks. There are more avalanche-prevention classes and resources than ever before — in 20 years, the handful of schools has grown to more than 100 — yet the fatality rate has steadily risen since the early 1990s. On average, approximately 30 people die in avalanches in the United States annually. (Last season, fortunately, there were only 11.) About a third are novices, but two-thirds have some level of
Why are capable people making such deadly decisions?
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