Dear Sundog: My partner and I were skiing in the backcountry when we kicked loose a small avalanche below us. We were not caught, and we didn’t see any people below. I thought we should report it to the avalanche forecasters, but she said we shouldn’t, as it could only get us in trouble. Who’s right? —Skinner
Dear Skinner: A decade or two ago when you skied the backcountry, you might not have seen other people. That was sort of the point. Now the sport is booming, and with last winter’s COVID closures at resorts, a whole new wave of skiers bought up the world’s supply of tech bindings and skins and probes and beacons and made their way into the hills to risk not only their own lives but those of unsuspecting strangers below them on the mountain.
Let’s review. When you buy a $150 lift ticket, you’re paying for the chairlifts and the freshly groomed corduroy and the tissue dispensers. But you’re also paying for safety. Each morning before dawn, ski patrol shoots mortars and bombs onto the powder-loaded slopes, triggering avalanches so that skiers won’t cause them later in the day. As a result, in-bounds avalanches are exceedingly rare (though not unheard of).
For decades, avalanche forecasting was left to professionals. Now every yahoo skinning up the mountain must understand how avalanches work; otherwise, they could bury not just themselves but others. Maybe it’s like air-traffic controlling. Airplanes hardly ever collide in midair. That’s because an expert is making sure they don’t. Imagine for a minute if we eliminated controllers and all pilots were responsible for avoiding one another. Scary thought.
Not only has the backcountry-avalanche situation become more dangerous, it has entered the legal system. In 2017 in the backcountry near Telluride, Colorado, a skier kicked down an avalanche on a woman below. She survived but was badly injured, incurring more than $50,000 in medical fees. She then sued the uphill skier in small-claims court and was awarded the maximum amount possible: $7,500. It was likely the first time that a backcountry skier had been judged liable for damages caused by an avalanche.
And a more complicated ethical conundrum recently hit the courts: In 2020, two experienced snowboarders in Summit County, Colorado, filmed themselves discussing the slide risks of dropping into a chute above Interstate 70. They went for it—and their judgment proved wrong. They released an avalanche that blocked a service road, destroying along the way, ironically, a piece of avalanche-detection equipment owned by the state. Price tag: $168,000.
The skiers promptly turned over their footage and, much to their surprise, were charged with reckless endangerment and faced jail time and restitution fees of the total amount. At first the crime seemed clear enough: they broke it, they should buy it. But hadn’t they done the ethical thing by turning over the footage? And do we want to send the message that if you report your own avalanches, you might be charged with a crime and sent to the poorhouse?
How to sort it all out? For many years, at least one avalanche professional has called for an ethical awakening in the backcountry. Forecaster and philosopher Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center has proposed a “Social Contract or Backcountry Responsibility Code,” predicting that unless skiers learned to self-police, we would see the advent of permits, closures, and lawsuits. And, lo, it has come to pass.
As with your typical avalanche forecaster, Hardesty speaks the lingo of slab and sluff, sun and slope, aspects and facets. Yet his newsletter also dives into the human element of the backcountry, and Hardesty—a former Navy officer, National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound instructor, and Grand Teton climbing ranger who was once awarded a valor medal for his part in rescuing 17 victims of lightning strike—views the mountains and their inhabitants through a slightly Old Testament lens, rich with allusions to Jean-Paul Sartre, Cormac McCarthy, and the book of Job.
Hardesty cites a 2015 paper by Bruce Jamieson, a Canadian avalanche researcher, and Alan Jones, an engineer at an avalanche-engineering consulting firm, estimating that 90 percent of nonfatal slides go undisclosed, and not just to the avalanche center but to friends and partners. Why? “Shame,” writes Hardesty. “Loss of respect, fear of reprisal, loss of their place on the soap-box, fear of losing their job.”
In other words, many backcountry skiers pride themselves on their ability to stay safe, and they don’t want to admit to miscalculations that could have killed somebody. To be sure, there is no legal requirement to report such incidents. But is there an ethical obligation?
“Your information saves lives,” says Hardesty. With 90 percent more data, forecasters could make better predictions, thus keeping people safer. But more importantly, Hardesty believes that a transparent give and take of information will create the kind of trusting community that backcountry users crave and depend on.
Meanwhile, the Colorado case plowed into murky ethical terrain. The snowboarders voluntarily turned over their video to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the agency whose equipment they destroyed. The CAIC passed it along to law enforcement but did not expect it to be used against the snowboarders. It was. Suddenly, the CAIC was faced with testifying against backcountry users who they felt had done the right thing by self-reporting. The Colorado attorney general filed a motion to shield the CAIC from having to take the stand, but the judge dismissed it. Then, in what Sundog would deem a classic case of the ski-town whatevers, the judge declared a mistrial because not enough local citizens showed up for jury duty. Finally, the boarders accepted a plea bargain, taking community service and probation in exchange for not having to pay back the $168,000 in damages. “It’s sad to bend over and get strong-armed by the DA,” remarked one of them, poetically, “but that’s what we had to do.”
An optimist might think that throwing the book at these two might cause other skiers to be more cautious. Sundog tends to think the result will be more people slinking away from sites of near misses, vowing to tell nobody. So, Skinner, your partner is correct that reporting might cause trouble. Nonetheless, it appears the more ethical option.
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