Safety first: Education key to reducing risks of skiing, riding at Lake Tahoe
For those chasing powder around Tahoe’s backcountry areas or in advanced zones at local ski resorts, there is a certain degree of danger that should be taken into consideration.
From getting injured or lost in a remote location to an accident like Friday’s avalanche at Alpine Meadows, skiing and riding in the Sierra comes with inherent risks, but those in the know say there are steps that can be taken to diminish the threat of an incident.
slow down, talk with patrollers
Many who purchase a lift ticket at one of the Truckee-Tahoe area’s resorts often assume there is little danger when skiing inbounds. They’ll hound resorts on social media about getting certain zones open sooner, eager to charge into an untouched line following a big winter storm, while taking little account for the possibility of something going wrong.
“Every single person at the resort these days … they just want to tear into every single zone to get fresh tracks. They’re constantly pushing to get these ropes down sooner and faster and pushing patrollers,” said Jason Layh, of Alpenglow Sports.
“Everything just has to be faster — slow down and talk to a patroller about what they’ve seen the past couple of days.”
While rare, according to the National Ski Areas Association, avalanches do occur inbounds at ski areas. Following Friday’s avalanche, which killed one man and seriously injured another at Alpine Meadows, a reported eight fatalities have resulted from inbounds avalanches in the last 10 years. The deaths, which don’t include ski patrollers performing avalanche mitigation, occurred in both closed terrain and terrain that was open to the public.
In total, there have been more than 250 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. since the 2009-10 ski season, according to the ski areas foundation, with the vast majority occurring in the backcountry.
“Avalanches and snow slides remain an inherent and recurrent risk of skiing and snowboarding, particularly in alpine environments where local weather and snow conditions can change dramatically in minutes,” Kelly Pawlak, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said in a news release.
“Skiers and snowboarders should educate themselves about the risks involved in recreating in avalanche terrain, and take precautions whenever they’re in avalanche-prone areas,” Pawlak added.
the more you know
Education is among the most important tools a skier or rider can have, said Layh, who advised taking an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education level one course, which gives skiers and riders a grounding in how to prepare for and carry out a backcountry trip, an understanding in basic decision making while in the field, and knowldedg of rescue techniques required to find and dig up a buried person if they are caught in an avalanche.
A number of backcountry guide services in the area offer classes, which can be found at AIARE.com.
For those venturing out, proper gear is also essential and should at least include a beacon, shovel, and probe. Another important source for skiers and riders is the Sierra Avalanche Center, which issues daily forecasts on avalanche danger, along information on the snowpack, recent snowfall, and weather for the greater Lake Tahoe area. While many simply look at the 24-hour snowfall reports from local resorts, Layh said it’s important to consider conditions in terms of the season.
“Everything to do with avalanche safety has to do with having an eye on what’s been happening on that snowpack over the course of the entire season,” said Layh. “Not just how much you got last night.”
The avalanche on Friday, Jan. 17, at Alpine Meadows occurred after Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows reported 25 inches of fresh snow at the resort’s upper mountain area. Due to the conditions that day, the Sierra Avalanche Center forecasted considerable avalanche danger for all elevations in the region.
The center reported a rapid snow loading event along with slabs of wind drifted snow, which created unstable conditions. Additionally, the center warned of the uncertainty of how the sugary, weak snow from a Jan. 4 storm was adjusting to the new snow load from the recent storm.
“If you’re on top of what is happening with the snowpack over the course of the season, you’d be more aware of that,” said Layh. “There were tons of people in the backcountry who were not pushing the steepest and deepest stuff they could find that entire weekend.”
‘AN ELEMENT OF RISK’
Following winter storms, like the one the area experienced last week, local resorts send ski patrollers out to do avalanche mitigation work. That work in avalanche-prone zones, however, doesn’t mean skiers and riders should thoughtlessly go charging down an advanced run.
“Ski patrols can minimize the danger to an extremely low level, but they can’t completely eliminate,” Karl Birkeland, director of the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center, said in a news release.
Avalanche mitigation work, according to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, took place in the area where Friday’s incident at Alpine Meadows occurred.
“Everything to do with mountain sports, there is an element of risk,” said Layh. “No patrol organization can ever 100% mitigate everything, and to think that they do is completely unfair to those professionals who are doing that and that put themselves in harms way to try and make it safer.”
Additionally, when out in advanced zones or in the backcountry, especially after winter storms, Layh advises skiers and riders to take it one step at a time, gauge the conditions, have a partner, and keep eyes on that partner, “instead of just gang charging where you’re going to increase the amount of weight and pressure on the snowpack and have a higher likelihood of getting a propagation.”