On Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, three skiers were killed in an avalanche while skiing in the out-of-bounds area of the Stevens Pass ski resort. Avalanches, like other natural phenomena, can be fatal, but being educated of its dangers can lower the number of fatalities.
“Get educated, that’s the most important thing,” said Eric Messerschmidt, Associated Students Outdoor Center Excursions coordinator.
One of the individuals who survived the Stevens Pass avalanche did so because she was wearing a device that helped her escape, said Henry Hagood, an AS Outdoor Center trip leader and Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council volunteer. He said avalanche education should be the forefront of prevention, and skiiers and snowboarders should have to rely on tools to save them, Hagood said.
“Everybody’s attention was drawn to the device that saved her, and everybody heralded that as the only reason she was alive,” Hagood said. “There was really no discussion on the fact that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was all promoting that product, and how it’s the only thing that can save you.”
With Mount Baker ski resort so close to Western’s campus, many students venture north to ski and snowboard the slopes. This recent tragedy at Stevens shows being educated on how to be safe in the mountains – specifically being out-of-bounds – is important.
An avalanche occurs when a layer of snow is poorly bonded to the snow below it, and that poor bond allows the snow on top to slide, Messerschmidt said. A poor bond between the layers of snow can be created by rain fall on the mountain, among other things. The rain freezes, later creating a slick ice layer; then everything on top has the potential to slide off easily.
“Avalanches are a natural phenomenon. I think they’re amazingly powerful and also a beautiful thing, but you just have to know how to not start [an avalanche] or be in one,” Messerschmidt said. “You have to treat them with a lot of respect.”
Another trigger is skiing on a slope that is prone to avalanches, which was the case of the Stevens Pass accident, Messerschmidt said.
At ski resorts, avalanches are less likely to cause fatalities because the resort has avalanche control and regulates where individuals go. The majority of people ski inside the bounds of a resort, so they do not need to worry as much about avalanche danger because ski patrollers do that for them, Messerschmidt said. Resorts use explosives and other techniques to release any avalanches that could occur before the lifts are open.
When planning on skiing and snowboarding in the out-of-bounds areas, also called the backcountry, checking the conditions is important, Messerschmidt said. The Northwest Avalanche Center website, nwac.us, is the best place to check for avalanche forecasts. Avalanches and their conditions are never consistent, Messerschmidt said. Different elevations accumulate varying amounts of snowfall, and some places on the snow soak up more sunlight than others, causing localized danger in different areas, Messerschmidt said.
The two groups that tend to get into trouble in the backcountry are people who do not understand avalanches and how to avoid them, as well as experts who tend to push the limits, Messerschmidt said.
“They definitely know the risks, but they get really comfortable being in risky positions, so they push it too far sometimes,” Messerschmidt said.
Being prepared is also vital, Messerschmidt said. The three pieces of gear every person going into the backcountry should have are an avalanche beacon or transceiver, a probe and a shovel.
An avalanche beacon is a small device strapped to one’s chest. The beacon has a frequency that can be changed into search mode, allowing individuals to search for other beacons’ frequencies, Messerschmidt said. If there is an avalanche and a group is split up, the beacon can assist in locating others in the party.
A probe is like a long tent pole, Messerschmidt said. The probe locks into place and lets the searcher feel where someone is buried. Avalanches can create massive amounts of snow, thus there is a great potential for people to be buried under many feet of snow.
A shovel can also be a life-saving tool while skiing and snowboarding. It can be used to unbury someone after an avalanche.
“Everyone that travels in the backcountry needs to have those three things,” Messerschmidt said. “If you end up using them, then you’ve made a mistake. You should only carry them as a precaution.”
If someone is buried, there are steps one should take as they are being buried under the snow of an avalanche, Messerschmidt said.
First, as the avalanche is flowing, try to swim to the surface. Before the snow settles, punch out an air pocket if possible. Then, as the snow starts to slow down and settle, the buried person needs to push to the top and try to get something above the surface so that people can seem them.
“You’re supposed to use as little oxygen as possible so that your buddies can rescue you,” Messerschmidt said.
Once those steps have been taken, the person buried must try to stay calm. This can be difficult because the snow takes on a cement-like quality, Messerschmidt said.
“During an avalanche, the snow consolidates to a point where it becomes like cement, so it’s not like the snow you’re used to playing with,” Messerschmidt said. “[The snow] piles in so tightly that it compresses all the air out of itself, so you probably won’t be able to move, and you will probably feel trapped.”
It is important to emphasize that people should avoid being caught in an avalanche in the first place, Messerschmidt said. There are expensive preventative products that skiers and snowboarders can have to assist in avalanche situations, but being educated beforehand will make these products unnecessary.
Around Bellingham, there are various classes and resources available to people concerning avalanche safety, Hagood said. Students can take classes about avalanche safety at the American Alpine Institute in Fairhaven, and receive a discounted price if they sign up at the Outdoor Center. In addition, the Mountain Education Center at the Mount Baker ski resort hosts avalanche safety classes. Even though these classes tend to cost a couple hundred dollars, they allow skiers and snowboarders to enjoy the slopes safely.
“If you’re willing to spend that much money on the skis that you use, you should be willing to spend that money on education that will let you ski the rest of your life, and not end your life because of foolish mistakes,” Messerschmidt said.