Thursday, January 28, 2010

Blessed are the merciful

Anyone on the Wasatch Front is probably aware by now that we had another avalanche fatality yesterday. That’s death number two in less than a week.

It seems as if there’s an unavoidable human urge to Monday morning quarterback these things and figure out what went wrong. And to the extent that helps us avoid mistakes in the future, that’s a good thing.

Sunday’s was pretty simple—the guy shouldn’t have split up with his partner. His arm was sticking out of the snow after the burial, so he likely could have been rescued had anyone been there to find him. [Update: victim was found face-down on top of the snow and apparently died of trauma. Who's to say whether having someone there right away would have made a difference. He may not have intended to go out of bounds and did not deliberately separate from his partner. Regardless, a tragic situation.]

Yesterday’s is a lot spookier. The skier was with partners, with the right tools, and they observed travel protocol by entering the slope one at a time. He was the first, he triggered the slide, and he was caught and carried. He was buried so deep that trees had to be removed to extricate him. The slide ran the length of the slope, across the creek at the bottom of the drainage, and up the other side. It was a big one. Even had they got him out faster, it likely would have made little difference due to the trauma suffered when he entered the trees.

The downside with Monday morning quarterbacking is that most people doing it assume they would have chosen otherwise. But nobody really knows what he or she would have chosen to do without actually being in that situation.

The thing that bothers me most about these incidents, aside from the loss of life itself, is the way the public reacts to them. Here are some sample comments to the article on, with grammar and spelling errors left in for effect:

F-150: This is getting to the point of stupidity. People? why are you going out in avalanche territory?
If thats what you want to do then dont come crying for help to get your but out!

Eichhoernchen: Call me a bad person, but I don't feel sorry for these people. I do feel sorry for their families and friends, but not them. They made a conscience decision.

Paravon: Sounds like their getting what they deserve. Its no secret we've all been warned about avalanche season, they must have figured they could pull it off but goes to show how ingorant stupid people can really be.

Xanax: They are called Darwin Award winners

Maverick07: The problem is that they ignored the avalanche warnings. WHy not go sky diving without a parachute?

Where is the compassion here? A man is dead, and saying “I told you so” after the fact won’t bring him back. Decision making in the backcountry is a complex thing where one little mistake can have huge consequences.

Yesterday morning, just a few hours before this incident, we were standing at the top of Flagstaff Mountain, looking into Days Fork, one drainage West of where this incident occurred. Of course we were thinking about skiing it—it was untracked and deep, and we hadn’t been in there all year because of avalanche conditions.

We kicked a few cornices and didn’t get anything to move. Still, we didn’t trust it. We thought about getting onto the slope and digging a pit, but even being on the slope to make assessments could trigger a slide, and we didn’t see any safe spots from which to evaluate. Ultimately we just headed back the way we came up, down a south-facing slope devoid of the rotten base layer that is causing everything to slide.

We all make decisions every day based on the best information we have available. Sometimes those decisions work out the way we hope they will, sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t, the human and decent thing is to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Accusations and spite accomplish nothing.


  1. accusing ksl commenters of being stupid is an insult to stupid people.

    of course, maybe i'm off base. maybe this post isn't about avalanches and ksl commenters at all, but is a metaphor for something much bigger.


  2. I could not agree with you more.

  3. According to the summary on the Utah Avalanche Center's website, the skier who died in Hells Canyon "...was found on the snow surface, face down and appeared to have been killed by trauma."

  4. I have to resist any temptation to click on the comments of ksl "news" reports (news being put in quotations because it usually barely qualifies). Reading the ksl comments puts my eyes at serious risk of being gouged out with a spoon. Especially after reading the "your stupid" and "you didnt spell that write" type comments.

  5. To be allowed to post comments on KSL, they should give you a quick, 1-word spelling test. A good word would be

  6. I keep thinking about buying a set of back country ski's. I keep waffling. My brother's friend died in an avalanche. He was dug out quickly but died from the head trauma. My brother still skis back country and tries to get me to go with him all the time.

    My son skis some sketchy stuff and I make him wear a beacon. It makes me feel better but sometimes I feel like they are nothing more than body recovery devices. What do you do? You have to live your life.

  7. Watcher: perfect!

    I think the UAC sets a great example in these cases. If anyone could say "we told ou so" it is them. instead they publicly offer condolences, and then try to inform us of how and what went wrong.

    I had actually started a similar post, based on the horrible comments on that story. But I had to stop. I was blown away by how many "he got what he deserved" opinions there were. It was heartbreaking. I hardly think being in the wrong place at the wrong time merits death. And like you said, how many us would have chosen not to ski that familiar slope?

    The Meadows slide was spooky. How often do we consider going to that slope because it is a "safe zone"? I hold that spot in some nostalgic regard because it was the first place I ever BC skied. For the victim, it was the last.

    These are uncommon times in the Wasatch.

  8. I agree, those "good riddance" messages are ghastly.

    But I've seen this pattern enough there must be something to it. Here's my guess: a person hears of a tragedy, at first they are sad, then they ask "why did this happen?", when they find ways the tragedy may have been prevented they get mad, then they lash out. And on the internet they can lash out anonymously and without feedback from peers to alert them that what they are saying is wrong.

    The behavior is still wrong, but I can see some enabling factors to explain why I see this type of reaction so often.

    My easy solution: don't read comments on any media website.

  9. The thought processes of these KSL people are really intriguing to me. One common thread to the posts you quoted goes something like this: there is an avalanche warning; anyone who goes into avalanche country disregards this warning; anyone who disregards this warning is stupid; I disdain stupid people.

    I fear people who make the kinds of assumptions and generalizations necessary to get to the conclusion that the dead are stupid. They assume that the avalanche warning universally applies to the "backcountry" -- whatever that is. Is it the place where there is snow? Are you in the backcountry once you turn up the canyon road? There is something wrong with someone who believes that the avalanche warning applies to all of the backcountry. Such a person is not astute enough or is too lazy to see that the backcountry consists of a large variety of terrain, some of which is safe, some of which is dangerous. Such a person fails to make that distinction.

    Such a person also takes as gospel the voice of the avalanche center. If the avalanche center says "no," they don't go. And they criticize people who do. To have that much faith in the avalanche center is a bit scary. Safe, yes. Rational, no.

    And what about the premise that if you venture into the backcountry you disregard the avalanche warning? That's not true. Why can't some people make room for the possibility that you can go into the backcountry AND take the avalanche forecast very seriously. The person who can't see that possibility scares me.

    Finally, to make a judgment that someone is stupid when so little facts are known or understood is, well, stupid. It also means that in real life, such person is running around the city making decisions and judgments based on unknown facts. And having children who do the same.

    Which is in large part why I find so much solace in the backcountry.

  10. hell, it is why i find solace in Saint George in January, February and sometimes March, could be worse, could be a bike fatality comments section.

  11. Have you ever read the comments about cyclists? They wish death on all of us. The 500 Warriors crash was filled with that crap.

  12. Mark, well said. More compassion and less condemnation is called for.

    For obvious reasons, I've thought a great deal about standing on the ridge with you that morning. Even though we all wanted to hit the powder shot, it was an easy call. Thankfully, a good tour doens't always have to have great skiing. Yiedling to caution and coming back another day is never a bad decision.

  13. I was involved in a bike fatality. That day changed the lives of all us there.

    There were plenty of people who had no idea what had happened who were quick to point out how "stupid" we all were.

  14. Stuff happens on bikes and on skis. We all do our best and hope for the same either way.

    Immortality is not in the cards regardless....

  15. Wow. Anonymity buys all sorts of guts. I will say this, however... Karma is a you-know-what. (I've been to India now so naturally I know all sorts of stuff about Karma).

    When these Schadenfreuders die on their couches from many years of inactivity, someone will be there to post slander on their KSL obituary page: "I don't feel sorry for Sally one bit. All she ever did was sit on the couch and eat ice cream." And yes, it will only be an obituary for these same told-you-so-ers won't be doing anything cool enough to make an actual article.

    I could go on, on and on. This state breeds sanctimonious commentary. (Maybe other states do too? Dunno, never lived out of this state.)

  16. Every year I get the itch to come try some bc ski with you all. Then avy fatalities begin and I lose my gumption. Since the boys were born even getting on a plane gives me the spooks.

    Maybe next year. Maybe not.

    Glad you guys all come of the mtn safe each week.