Burying the Truth

A recent spate of avalanche deaths near ski resorts sparked a flurry of media reports, many declaring that so-called sidecountry skiing is becoming an increasingly dangerous pursuit. It’s just not that simple.

  1. On the afternoon of February 23, a 24-year-old snowboarder named Timothy Robert Baker was killed in an avalanche in Dutch Draw, a lift-accessed drainage just outside The Canyons Resort, in Park City, Utah. Baker’s death was the latest in a grim week for Western skiers seeking fresh sidecountry powder—it was the sixth fatality in 10 days, including two skiers who died in Colorado in separate incidents, and three who perished in a massive slide on Stevens Pass, northeast of Seattle, Washington on February 19.

    The rash of accidents pushed the season total of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers killed in slides to 22, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a number that is now likely to exceed the national average of 28.8, (January and February are statistically the deadliest months). Not surprisingly, the incidents prompted a melee of media attention, including prominent coverage from the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and NBC. One would be forgiven for coming away with the impression that the danger, and the number of skiers and snowboarders courting it, are on the rise, and that, as the Times put it, “increasingly those who put themselves in harm’s way seem not to be careless novices but rather experts pushing the limits of safety.”

    Much of the coverage has focused on two significant trends: the growing popularity of the sidecountry—lift-accessed terrain beyond resort boundaries—which isn’t new; and the use of airbag backpacks as avalanche prophylaxis, which...

Originally published in Outside, March 2012