The Mountain Times

°F Thu, April 24, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Exploring the backcountry is the next frontier for skiers and riders

Extreme risks are inherent if athletes are not experienced and prepared

Author's Note: This is a first in a series of articles that will explore a variety of issues that relate to safety in snow sports, whether skinning, winter hiking, skiing or riding, all-terrain or backcountry.

One of the most serious issues in snow sports concerns safety. While advances in trail grooming and ski/ride equipment have done much to reduce the risk of injury and death on-trail, today's skiers and riders are increasingly going out of bounds, becoming lost and having to be directed back to safety or rescued.

This is a growing concern for local resorts, state police, and the new Killington Search and Rescue Team-all of which are having to mount expensive search/rescue parties that can be dangerous for everyone involved.

To understand this trend, it helps to be aware of the allure of exploring off-trail terrain. Educating people about safe procedures so inexperienced or under-prepared athletes don't take risks that could cost them their lives, is becoming increasingly important.

Extreme skiers and riders are shown in movies (like the ones popularized by Warren Miller) having wild adventures in uncharted territory. Such extreme freeskiers or freeriders, don't just leave marked trails of a resort, they are going to places that require snowmobiles, snowcats or helicopter to access. They seek "new lines" and to conquer terrain that requires mind-boggling athletics that defy our notion of 'recreational skiing or riding.'

Local experts, who do not have access to helicopters, often embark on mountaineering expeditions by taking exits from existing ski areas to explore the backcountry. These experts, if smart, are prepared with all the necessary equipment to skin out of the flats, stay warm and hydrated and find their way back based on their intimate knowledge of mountain topography- many will also be prepared to spend the night, if unforeseen circumstances arise.

The problem is more people are now following their tracks, qualified or not.

Therein lies the problem of the "followers," people who have not had years of instruction, practice, and experience. The lure is in the beauty and the risk - often not understood as real danger by those 'followers' who idealize the extreme risk-takers who make a living by starring in extreme skiing film productions. Professional athletes appear to defy death, which is what makes their movies compelling. Where they accomplish the seemingly impossible in beautiful locations, the cinematography and music is nothing short of heart stopping. And that sells not only the movie, but also the experience.

An article in the Dec. 23, 2012 Special Sports Supplement in The New York Times, chronicled last year's deadly avalanche at Steven's Pass, in Washington state (see Snow Fall, The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek on the web). It was an amazingly well researched piece that clearly noted the risks being taken not only by experts who make their livings from skiing and riding in today's ski movies, but also by people who find the backcountry so compelling they can't resist a beautiful 'siren call.'

At Steven's Pass, the tragedy was the irresistibility a hosting communications person felt to show visiting media the beautiful but avalanche prone backcountry in what were not ideal circumstances.

While we do not have avalanche terrain to worry about locally, the same 'siren call' is increasingly beckoning to experienced skiers and riders as well as to the inexperienced, young and old, local and visitor. Folks are going out of bounds more frequently, and the scary part is just how unprepared most are to spend a night in the woods should they become lost or injured.

Witness two eleven-year old girls who recently skied off Pico and became lost before they were found by out-of-bounds experts skiing near Ramshead at Killington. The girls did not have cell phones, did not know the numbers of their parents' cell phones, and had been lost for over two hours. The good Samaritans led them to safety and made calls to alert officials so they could allay fears of what the rescuers could only imagine to be frantic parents.

[Please, parents of any age children, including teenagers, put an index card in their parkas with your name, cell number, place you are staying, its number, backup emergency numbers, and where to meet you should you/they get separated or lost. If they have cell phones or two-way radios (a great backup that doesn't require a costly phone plan), make sure they know to call you immediately, and if they cannot reach you to call 9-1-1. This applies to everyone.]

In Homer's epic poem the Odyssey, Odysseus is warned away from the island of the Sirens, where evil femme fatales lure sailors to their deaths on rocky shoals because their beautiful voices and music cannot be resisted. Heeding the advice that no one can resist their beautiful call, the crew is lashed to the masts until their ship passes to safer territory.

So that we might better understand "the siren call" and the need to explore and push oneself to the limits that all ages are finding irresistible-no one is tying them down-it helps to know the history of how we got here.

Racing once challenged the avid skiing aficionado, but that became 'old hat' for some, and soon better groomed terrain and snowmaking meant there was little that truly challenged, threatened or thrilled. As skiing became too mainstream and boring for some, they progressed to copying the creativity of the graceful flips of a Stein or the double somersaults of a Goellner and Leroy at Killington. That's when more skiers found their thrill in freestyle - moguls, ballet, and "hot dogging." Competitions brought fun, fame and fortune. The adulation of the crowd was a factor and part of that thrill.

With accidents and insurance problems, freestyle's popularity took a short hiatus, but in the meantime snowboarding arrived and offered another challenge, something new, something cool. Again, as with freestyle, it had its rebellious element, this time in language and dress. But it was so cool that riding became America's fastest growing sport, once again seeing the "new" into an accepted form until folks found more thrills in parks and pipes.

At the same time, some intrepid skiers discovered the allure of the trees, and by the late 1980s we were starting to see glades and tree terrain open up. Others began to push the speed limits (speed skiers reached over 100 mph on courses) and still others pushed the boundaries of the mountains themselves.

Suddenly, the crazy 1930s' descents of Tuckerman's Ravine were in vogue as annual pilgrimages were made by throngs seeking to conquer the challenge. Skiing glaciers and the world's tallest mountains needed to be accomplished simply because they were there!

The sport evolved and extreme became the darling of the sports world with the exploration of the uncharted becoming a new goal.
In essence, the sport of sliding on snow is evolving yet again, and backcountry is becoming the new frontier that is pushing the limits of the sport once again.

So we are now finding the "siren call' has filtered down to the point that more and more people are risking injury and death in what is a truly stupid manner when undertaken deliberately and without preparations to spend a night in freezing cold woods or get themselves safely out if injured.

While some people go out of bounds accidentally and get lost, leaving the marked trail is always a choice. Many glades, however, are now within boundaries so it is somewhat understandable that those not familiar with a resort can get confused when seeing so many tracks that leave posted trails; without really thinking about it such tracks would seem to indicate areas of good tree skiing.
This too, is part of that "siren call," the irresistible urge to explore. The expectation is those tracks will lead one back to the trail or base area. When this is not the case, however, trouble can arise for those who heed that irresistible urge to follow or explore.

If there is no posted trail sign that indicates a glade or wooded terrain is actually an in-bounds resort-sanctioned place to ski (presumably one that is checked on occasion for safe conditions and closed if deemed not safe), following such tracks is not advisable for the unprepared and inexperienced.

Maps show ski-area boundaries and warn not to go out of bounds. The trouble is few are reading or heeding them, and no one wants every tree marked by a sign or edges of trails lined with ropes. That would destroy the mountain's beauty and is simply not practical.

But there are safe solutions for the not-so experienced/prepared skiers and riders and for those visiting the area to explore the backcountry. Killington has recognized this compelling urge to explore and encourages folks to do so safely with a guide.

Dan Egan is one of the top adventure skiers who made his reputation as extreme skiing was making its daredevil debut. Powder Magazine dubbed him one of the "Top Skiers of All Time," and Warren Miller captured his feats in 12 of his films. He has also authored two books, leads and participates in adventure travel trips, ranging from the Alps to the Arctic and coaches advanced ski clinics all over the world.

This is his second season at Killington, where he is leading a series of clinics.

Egan is offering an opportunity to learn skills of All-Terrain skiing on Jan. 26-27. This experience focuses on one's equipment and skills necessary to negotiate moguls, steeps, glades and side-country terrain at Killington. It is clearly created for the adventurous.
A backcountry clinic, called Exploring the Beast, will be offered Feb. 15-16, Feb. 17-18, and March 9-10. Reading terrain, conditions and picking the best lines down the mountain while exploring the glades, side country and backcountry terrain are the focus of this clinic. (An optional add-on offers skiers with climbing skins and their own AT equipment, an adventurous trip up to the Ledgewood Yurt for a gourmet experience.)

So is the media or Killington Resort aiding and abetting that 'siren song' by encouraging the curious to take one of the clinics?
Fortunately, no, just the opposite.

"We are offering them because the market for AT programs is growing; it is one of the few, if not the only hard goods category that is growing at this point," Rob Megnin, marketing director for Killington Resort said. "Also, we are trying to educate the marketplace as to proper techniques, best practices, and, of course, safety," he added. Offering clinics is a sane way to promote safety precisely because education and expertise are necessary to avoid irrational risks that can have tragic consequences.

According to Kelly Davis, director of research for SIA (Snowsports Industry of America), sales of Alpine AT boots (downhill oriented with a walk/ski mode and interchangeable soles) were up 40 percent in dollars sold last year over the previous season. In two seasons, sales have gone from $2 million to $11.5 million!

Total bindings sales were up $2 million to $48 million, with AT/Randonee sales at $25 million.

This is a new trend that we will be seeing as Megnin notes, and people need to understand the risks involved as well as the way to mitigate them while exploring.

Experience tells us it is human nature for the more adventurous among us to heed the 'siren call' of the backcountry; this is the next frontier of skiing and riding and it's exciting that resorts like Killington are getting behind the movement to encourage safe exploration.

Most sports involve some inherent risk, and in some measure, it is the thrill that entices skiers and riders to pursue these sports.
But just as helmets have helped to reduce head injuries on the slopes because of widespread adoption, people need to approach backcountry risks with education and preparedness. This "new frontier" is the wilderness itself, and only the foolish will take the inherent risks lightly.