Sunday, February 22, 2009

Push to talk

A few days ago, my wife came home from the store with a copy of Salt Lake Magazine. She thought I'd be interested in it because it had a story on backcountry skiing near Snowbasin as well as a retrospective for Alta's 70 year anniversary.

When I read the backcountry article, I was disappointed. First of all, it wasn't about backcountry skiing, but rather "slackcountry" skiing--riding the chairlifts up and then going out the gates to ski out of bounds terrain. The objective of the article was apparently to schill for the products featured in the sidebar. Why else would they use Head IM 88 skis, which weigh about as much as bolting an anvil to your bindings and ski powder only slightly better? But the really appalling but not at all surprising thing was that they paid only cursory attention to avalanche danger.

The author must have thought that since they were near the resort and other people were heading out the gates, they were OK. In reality, this is probably the most dangerous situation because the people ducking ropes aren't always the most experienced backcountry travelers. Experienced or not, just because someone else is skiing a slope, doesn't mean it's safe. But people with no backcountry experience who just read an article in a magazine don't know this. Nor do they know that any backcountry travel, including that accessed via chairlift, should be done with a beacon, shovel, and probe, and the wherewithal to use them. Unless of course, the magazine does the responsible thing and points these things out along with a stern caution that what they're writing about is dangerous.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to write a letter to the editor. Too bad the magazine was so dull that I won't be reading any subsequent issues to see if they actually publish one.

This tendency to underestimate the avalanche danger or overestimate one's ability to deal with it is not unique to this article. Two snowboarders were caught and taken for a ride near Brighton earlier this year. They were lucky to live through it, but having done so, will probably be emboldened by the experience rather than taking the risks seriously. I certainly hope I'm wrong.

In nearby Montana, a fellow skier observed the following example of why the article in Salt Lake Magazine was so dangerous:
Riding up the tram at Big Sky a few weeks ago, minding my own business, when the culmination of all gaper quotes occured and changed my life forever.

Four young, besnowboarded bros are clustered on one side of the tram, and as my mind drifts back into the cabin, I pick up on their conversation and realize that they are lamenting vociferously the fact that the a$$h*les of the Big Sky ski patrol don't lend out avy equipment to payin' customers so that they can ski the Big Couloir. By now, the brains and voice of this small crew has reached peak pitch, and, no longer able to adequetly cope with his frustration in a relatively quiet manner, bursts out with the following:

"Well I just don't get what the big deal is. I mean, they could just lend us the stuff for a run no problem. And anyways, what's there to understand? You've got your shovel, your probe, and your transceiver, and you push the button to talk..."

At which my mouth dropped open involuntarily. And then closed. And then we got to the top, and stepped out, and I skied quietly down, dwelling heavily on what I had just heard.


  1. If that is how beacons worked, what would you say? (assuming you could move your arms enough to operate it, which you wouldn't be able to)

    "OK dude, I am under the snow."


    "Well, its dark so I can't see where."

    "OK. We will just start probing."


    In contrast, the piece on GMA with McClean was good. As someone new to BC skiing it has been a huge benefit to become more educated about avalanche safety. There needs to be more of that kind of mass communication about what causes avalanches, how to recognize the conditions, and how to travel safely though avalanche terrain.

    I'd hate to see those guys from the tram try and find their buried buddy by yelling into the beacon like its a 2-way radio. If it wouldn't be so tragic, it would be hilarious.