Thu, Jan 17, 2013 03:52 PM
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
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
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
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
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
THE SIREN CALL
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
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
The sport evolved and extreme became the darling of the sports
world with the exploration of the uncharted becoming a new
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.
LOST IN THE WOODS
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
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
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
EXTREME, ALL-TERRAIN CLINICS
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
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.)
GROWTH IN DOLLARS
So is the media or Killington Resort aiding and abetting that
'siren song' by encouraging the curious to take one of the
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
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
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.
HERE TO STAY
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
Most sports involve some inherent risk, and in some measure, it
is the thrill that entices skiers and riders to pursue these
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.