Standing atop an untracked run, your skis or board squeaking underneath you as you press your body over the edge to carve your first powder turn is exhilarating. Snow flies over your head; you sink into the light, cold snow and come up for air. Then you drop again into the forgiving fluff. Every turn is grace, every snowflake a tiny fairy alighting on your cheek.
It is magic. Time slows down and you are transported. Your smile freezes into place.
Just one run like this and you are hooked for life. When conditions are deep, and the snow is fresh, we all rush out in hopes of that perfect powder run—the kind that just might make the season, or even our lives—worthwhile. The rewards are immense.
And so are the risks.
Mitigating and warning skiers and riders of the risks in skiing is the responsibility of the ski area and the ski patrol. Following the rules, knowing the skier’s responsibility code and understanding that some risks cannot be eliminated, is the onus of skiers and riders.
When the patrol drops the gates on the Throne, every skier and snowboarder entering Southback must weigh the rewards against the risks. We each do our own risk/reward calculus, choosing the best line, carrying the proper gear and skiing with a partner. Each one of us is responsible for ourselves, accepting that some risks are inherent in the sport and cannot be eliminated.
Avalanches and deep snow immersion deaths are inherent risks in skiing. While explosives and skier compaction can reduce the risk of avalanches, the risk cannot fully be eliminated.
Some might ask, “Why not just close the avalanche prone areas during higher avalanche hazard?” At Crystal, like most steep, snowy Western resorts, that would not only be difficult, it would fundamentally alter the sport.
Given enough snow and stress on the snowpack, any slope above 25 degrees, the equivalent of a black diamond run at a Western resort, can avalanche. 35% of Crystal’s named runs are black diamond or above, which doesn’t include much of the off-piste expert terrain. If we were to close all avalanche prone areas during a storm, we would not be open very often. Not only would that make the slopes far less stable without the necessary skier compaction, it would also change the sport of skiing as we know it.
The best way to mitigate avalanche hazard is through skier compaction. In a maritime snowpack, such as ours at Crystal, very rarely would a slope full of moguls avalanche. We are concerned mainly with new snow avalanches. Sometimes we also worry about deeper slab instability, such as during our most recent storm cycle. We received ten feet of snow in that cycle, and the new snow did not have time to gain strength.
If we had closed our avalanche prone terrain, such as Bear Pits, Southback and Northway, during our latest snow cycle, we would have bummed out a lot of people. We would have altered the sport. Not only would we have done nothing to reduce the hazard and changed the sport of skiing in the PNW, we would have also run the risk of violators poaching the closed areas. We try to open the terrain that our skiers want to ski because that is the nature of the sport. They want to ski powder (don’t we all?) and we want them to put skier tracks in the new snow to reduce the risk of future avalanches.
Sometimes we keep terrain closed for avalanche hazard. Southback might remain closed for several days at a time. This usually occurs during times of high hazard and snow accumulation, when the amount of new snow is too much for skiers to track up before the next system arrives. Bear Pits and Northway, with the aid of lift-access, are easier to open during big snow events, and therefore receive more skier compaction.
Next time you wait at a gate or stand on top of an untracked run, remember to consider the risks along with rewards. Remember that ultimately you are responsible for your own safety. Only your choices and actions can determine what happens to you. Are you wearing a beacon and shovel? Do you know how to use it? Are you skiing with a partner that will watch you and wait for you and call for help if you don’t show up? Don’t assume that just because a slope is open that it is 100% safe. Some risks simply cannot be eliminated without fundamentally altering the sport.
We all make the mountains our playground. But unlike the regulated and safe schoolyard structures in the city, up here the risks are very real. Tree wells exist throughout the ski area. Avalanches can happen. Each one of us must calculate the risks for ourselves. We must teach the risks to our kids, and we should talk about them with our skiing partners.
Only then can we truly enjoy the magic that happens up here.