Column: “Slide Victims Not Faultless”

Rocky Mountain News, February 5, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, a skier was killed by an avalanche in one of the East Vail Chutes. A number of news reports covering the accident explained that the victim had “done everything right” because he had worn an avalanche beacon and carried a shovel and a probe.

With all sympathy for the friends and family of the people involved in this horrible accident, it’s rare that any skier caught in an avalanche did everything right.

Take, for instance, the terrain the victim chose to ski. Avalanches are most probable on slopes that range from 30 to 45 degrees. In the middle of a major avalanche cycle – slides had been running all over the state, and another skier was killed in a nearby chute just a week before – the victim opted to ski a 35- degree avalanche chute.

Choosing to ski a known avalanche path when the snowpack is sketchy is a risky proposition, avalanche gear or no. In fact, the very gear that can save your life in an avalanche may also contribute to the poor decisions that lead to such accidents.

Call it the transceiver trap. Avalanche transceivers have, sometimes for the worse, changed the way we approach avalanche risk.

Until the invention of the transceiver in 1968, skiers who were buried in avalanches had almost no chance of being found alive. It simply took too long to find them.

“You’d bring in a rescue team – they’d have a probe line. If you happened to have a dog, you let the dog do its thing. But there was almost no means of companion rescue,” said Knox Williams, former director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Transceivers improved a victim’s odds of being found before suffocating under the snow, but because the devices were difficult to use, mortality rates for avalanche victims remained high: Two-thirds of victims buried with transceivers still died.

In the past five years, however, just more than 50 percent of buried victims have survived, a development that most avalanche professionals ascribe to the advent of easy-to- use digital transceivers like Backcountry Access’ Tracker DTS.

With the help of the Tracker and other digital transceivers that followed, recreational users’ search times have dropped by more than half from a none-too-reassuring 35 minutes with the old analog beacons.

Still, even the most high-tech transceiver can’t guarantee your survival in an avalanche. Once a victim is located, rescuers must still move an estimated ton and a half of snow to extricate someone buried a meter down within the optimal 15-minute window (nine in 10 buried victims survive the first 15 minutes of a burial; only one in three survives beyond 35 minutes).

And even if your posse digs you out quickly, there’s no guarantee you won’t get your head scrambled on a rock or a tree on the way down – a quarter of avalanche deaths result from trauma rather than suffocation.

I won’t pretend I’m any holier than thou about this. I’ve fallen prey to the transceiver trap any number of times, most recently a couple of years ago when I went out with a crew when avalanche conditions were questionable. We had our eye on a steep chute that looked to have a safe run-out and, after some indecision, decided to ski it one at a time, posting lookouts so we could see what happened to the skier if it slid.

It didn’t slide that day, but it very well could have, and if I had it to do all over again, I’d follow the advice that former CAIC forecaster Dale Atkins once gave me: Next time you’re eyeing a dicey-looking run, turn off your beacon and then decide whether to go for it.

There’s no way I would have skied that chute without my transceiver. Beacons are essential tools in the backcountry, but it’s all too easy to convince yourself your transceiver can somehow, magically, protect you from dying in an avalanche. It can’t.

The best option for surviving an avalanche is not to get caught in one in the first place.