Snow Fall (Excerpt)

In this passage from his harrowing account of the avalanche that killed three people last February in Washington’s Cascade Range, John Branch describes the evolution of the deceptively high-danger pursuit of backcountry skiing.

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  1. Stevens Pass opened in the winter of 1937–38 with a rope tow on Big Chief Mountain. A lodge and five new tows were added in the 1940s, including a mile-long T-bar that pulled people up the side of Cowboy Mountain. The ski area took shape in the bowl below the crescent-shape ridge that connects the two mountains.

    Seventh Heaven, a two-person lift up a steep wall of Cowboy Mountain, changed the complexion of Stevens Pass when it was built in 1960. It opened a high swath of expert terrain, now marked as double diamond—experts only—on posted signs and the ski map.

    It also provided easy access to the top of the high ridgeline. Back then, few people dared to remove their skis and hike the few hundred extra feet to the summit. “When I was younger at Stevens, no one skied off Cowboy—maybe just a few locals,” said Wangen, who has skied the area for nearly five decades. “But the last 20 years, it’s gone ballistic.”

    Now there is a steady procession of expert skiers and snowboarders through the boundary gate next to the top of the lift. Most drop off the left side of the ridge, back into the resort, through the rocky and narrow chutes.

    Those who drop away from the ski area, toward Tunnel Creek, are simply following a much wider trend into “sidecountry”—backcountry slopes easily entered by lifts and, sometimes, a short hike.

    “I don’t like the term ‘sidecountry,’ ” Moore, the avalanche forecaster, said. “It makes it sound like ‘backcountry light.’ ”

    The rise of backcountry skiing can be credited to a collision of factors.

    Ski areas that once vigilantly policed their boundaries, from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Squaw Valley, Calif., have gradually opened their gates to the territory surrounding them. While that has led to wrangling over liability issues and raised debate over search-and-rescue responsibilities, most areas note that they are carved out of public land. They really cannot keep people from going there.

    But ski areas also see the potential to attract more ticket-buying customers, and more influential ones, by blurring the boundary lines. Many areas slyly promote not just the terrain inside their borders, but the wilder topography beyond, using the power of media and word of mouth—as Rudolph did for Stevens Pass.

    Skiing adjacent to ski areas, however, can numb people to risk. Easy access, familiar terrain and a belief that help is just a short distance away may lead people to descend slopes they might avoid in deeper wilderness.

    While most backcountry users would not consider entering known avalanche territory without a beacon, one study last winter at Loveland Ski Area in Colorado found that fewer than 40 percent of people who passed through a boundary gate wore one.

    Equipment advances have emboldened people. Intermediate powder skiers have been turned into expert ones thanks to fatter skis and the “rocker” shape of their tips—design advances borrowed from snowboarding. Popular ski bindings now temporarily detach at the heel, allowing skiers to glide up rises like a cross-country skier, then reconnect so they can descend like a professional downhiller.

    Snowboards have borrowed from skis, too. Some models can be quickly split into two pieces, allowing users to stride up short hills in pursuit of bigger descents.

    Similar advances in safety gear, like easy-to-use digital beacons and air bags, have helped make the backcountry feel less dangerous. Beacons help rescuers find people buried under the snow, while air bags deploy a large balloon meant to help keep the skier closer to the surface of an avalanche. A leading American manufacturer of safety gear is named, appropriately, Backcountry Access.

    Companies, including Salomon and Flylow, have marketed heavily to ride the backcountry trend. They are keenly aware that many buyers will never ski the backcountry but want to dress the part.

    Those marketing shifts have coincided with a generation raised on the glorification of risk. From X Games to YouTube videos, helmet cameras to social media, the culture rewards vicarious thrills and video one-upmanship. This generation no longer adheres to the axiom of waiting a day for safer conditions. The relative placidness of inbounds skiing is no match for the greater adventure of untamed terrain.

    Among avalanche forecasters and the growing cottage industry of safety instructors, there is pride in noting that the number of fatalities has risen at a slower rate than the number of backcountry users. But they see themselves as part of a difficult race between the coming hordes and the tools to protect them.

    “You could argue that skiers have never been this educated or safe,” Stifter, the Powder magazine editor, said. “There’s been a huge emergence and emphasis on avalanche classes. Then you also have this lifesaving technology. But if you go to Jackson or Utah, you’ll see people who are not educated, who are just going out there because they see it in the movies and they see it in magazines like Powder: there’s fresh tracks and, man, it looks like fun.”

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    Purchase John Branch’s Snow Fall

Originally published in Byliner, December 2012