This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
Imagine you are pushing your raft into whitewater at the start of a remote river trip and you turn to the person next to you and ask them a question about basic river safety, says Vail backcountry ski guide and avalanche safety instructor Kelli Rohrig.
“And you find out that person doesn’t know how to swim or throw a throw-bag,” she says. “You’d be like ‘Oh man, you are a hazard.’”
Rohrig has been asking a lot of questions of backcountry skiers leaving the Vail ski area in recent seasons. As adventuring skiers begin their hike from the ski area boundary toward the steep, powdery slopes of East Vail, she’s been asking them about their avalanche training, their history with avalanches and their safety equipment.
The answers she’s collected over the past three seasons are disturbing:
- 52 of 95 respondents reported having triggered a slide in the past.
- 25 said they had been caught in an avalanche.
- 9 reported having recently practiced searches with their beacon.
- About a third had never taken a formal avalanche education class or an avalanche awareness class. A third had taken an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 class and about 15% had taken an awareness class.
“This was purely out of curiosity, really. I wanted to test my theory, not that people were being reckless, but maybe they were a bit more cavalier about avalanche dangers,” she said. “It was pretty shocking hearing so many people talk about getting caught in avalanches.”
Sometimes Rohrig would post up at the bus stop in East Vail, where skiers who just descended from the top of Benchmark Bowl typically exit from the East Vail terrain. Sometimes she would survey skiers at the top of Mongolia Bowl as they left the Vail ski area boundary, clattering through a swinging sign that ominously warns “YOU CAN DIE” and “This is your decision point.”
Avalanches are common on the plummeting north-facing slopes of East Vail that tower above Interstate 70. And so are skier deaths. At least eight skiers have been killed in slides in East Vail since the late 1980s.
In the early 1990s, a handful of skiers regularly ventured into East Vail terrain. By 2008, the White River National Forest estimated the chutes lured about 300 people a day.
Backcountry skiing has exploded in the past decade, with human-powered snowsports ranking as the fastest growing segment in winter recreation. SnowSports Industries America in 2017 estimated that nearly 7 million skiers ventured into the backcountry during the 2016-17 winter.
But the growth in backcountry skiing traffic is largely anecdotal when it relates to travelers in specific areas. The parking lots atop Berthoud, Loveland and Vail passes overflow on snowy weekends, as do most trailheads. Hundreds of skiers regularly skin up resort slopes every morning across the West.
On a busy weekend at Vail, a parade of skiers climb the short stretch from the resort boundary to the top of Benchmark Bowl and ski down to the Vail Valley floor. Many ski more than one lap a day.
But accumulating hard statistics about backcountry travelers and their behaviors is a challenge. No one is selling tickets. Few set up shop and survey skiers as they hustle to the skintrack.
Over the past two winters, volunteers with the Northwest Avalanche Center Trailhead Project have set up tents at backcountry access points across the Pacific Northwest, surveying skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers as they head into avalanche terrain. They have conducted 1,597 surveys, delivering rare insight about backcountry travelers in the Pacific Northwest. Initial numbers reported in the October issue of The Avalanche Review magazine show 48.4% of respondents reported having no avalanche training and 53.7% were traveling with no avalanche safety equipment.
Those findings align with Rohrig’s surveys. Last season, she buried an avalanche transceiver under a few inches of snow and asked East Vail-bound skiers to find the beeping beacon. A standard for avalanche professionals is to locate two beacons in five minutes and three beacons in seven minutes. Rohrig asked 33 passing skiers to search and 16 obliged. All but one of them reported having formal avalanche education, yet three took longer than three minutes to find the beacon and five were unable to find the beacon at all.
“That’s a 50% failure rate,” she said.
Rohrig teaches advanced avalanche education courses, often taken by skiers who are pursuing a career on snow. It’s not uncommon for those AIARE Level 2 students to not know how to use their beacon, she said.
“I think as educators we are failing in the education we are presenting if someone can get to Level 2 and still be fumbling with their probe and beacon,” she said.
That’s where she hopes her research can help prod skiers to assess and hone their skills. She plans to spend time this season surveying more skiers and snowmobilers at remote trailheads — maybe up Vail Pass at the access to Uneva Peak — and expand her statistics, which she hopes to publish in the spring in The Avalanche Review.
“It’s hard to change behaviors, but maybe by doing research like this we can get more people to understand they can always learn more and they can always practice a little more,” she said.