Is this the new normal?
To grasp the extent of the avalanche problem, first consider how tragic last winter was. The 34 fatalities that occurred in the U.S. comprised the fifth-highest total since 1950, according to data maintained by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. However, last year was only the third-highest total in the past four years, falling short of the 36 deaths in both 2007-08 and 2009-10.
It's been building to this point. The eight highest U.S. avalanche death totals in recorded history have all occurred since 1995. In Canada, the 30-year-average number of fatalities from 1978-2007 was 11. In the past decade, that average has grown to 14.
The question isn't whether something has changed, the question is what has changed. Why are more people dying in avalanches?
Easy answer: more people are frequenting the backcountry, so more people are going to die. It's like swimming with great whites that way. But there are offsetting factors, too, like improved education, more advanced forecasting methods and forecasters' placing a greater priority on backcountry users, as opposed to highway corridors or ski areas. "More equals more" is not the only explanation.
In fact, in a series of interviews for this story, U.S. and Canadian avalanche experts said they believe the equation has grown much more complex in recent years. Not so much due to physical changes, although gear is indisputably involved, but more due to new mentalities. In many ways, they believe the sport's entire purpose has shifted.
"Ten years ago, the intent of avalanche bulletins and alerts was to avoid avalanches," said longtime forecaster and now president of the American Avalanche Association, Dale Atkins. "We only carried rescue gear in case we made a mistake. I'd even say making a mistake was bad form. But in recent years, people have started carrying rescue gear to push the limits. I even had one person say to me recently that getting caught is part of the game."
It's easy to forget that backcountry skiing used to consist solely of big traverses or wiggling down 25-degree powder fields. Skiing steep slopes required years of apprenticeship and elite skills. "I remember when the educational pamphlets used to say, 'Stay off steep slopes. Stick to ridgetops,'" Atkins said. "Telling a rider to stay off steep slopes now is like telling a golfer to stay off flat greens."
It's not a news flash that steep backcountry snow is skied more often. What is sometimes missed, however, is that while better gear has lowered the skill quotient, it hasn't done anything for the knowledge quotient. As a result, the two most critical factors in accessing avalanche terrain have become dangerously separated. "Knowledge tends to lag behind ability now," Atkins said.
I don't ever want to get to the point where I think deaths are normal in this sport. You shouldn't accept that that's the norm." -- Andrea Binning, pro skier
While the social influence is impossible to quantify one way or the other, multiple sources brought it up when evaluating what's changed in the avalanche conversation. "It used to be the sport was more aesthetic and not as much about adrenaline. You'd climb something in a gorgeous area and ski something reasonable, but not intense," said Jeffrey Bergeron, a columnist for Backcountry Magazine who has skied in the backcountry for 37 years. "Now, I'll go ski some mellow trees by myself on light gear and come home and look at Facebook and see someone skied a big line somewhere, and I almost feel like a loser."
Facebook shame does not portend death, of course. But the point remains: What was once the norm is no longer the norm. And the new norm carries significantly more risk.
What's less clear is how much tragedy we should expect to live with, given the new norm. Andrea Binning, a world champion big-mountain skier who lives in France, narrowly survived a large avalanche in 2006 in British Columbia. The next year, her husband, pro skier Stian Hagen, survived an even larger one in the same mountain range. He was left clinging to the snow above a fracture line that broke 1,000 feet across, and he spent the summer, he says, "evaluating my whole career."
No matter what the numbers say, Binning remains unwilling to concede human life to avalanches. "I don't ever want to get to the point where I think deaths are normal in this sport," she said. "You shouldn't accept that that's the norm."
It's a provocative question, without a clear answer. Doug Chabot, an avalanche forecaster in Montana and accomplished mountaineer, believes that as long as people enter snowy terrain that is 25 degrees or steeper, "it is impossible for there to be no deaths."
Canadian Avalanche Center forecaster Ilya Storm agrees, citing the "naivete" of inexperienced backcountry users. Yet where does inevitability become normalcy? "It's almost like saying, 'Do you accept it as normal when someone dies in a car accident?'" said German ski mountaineer Benedikt Böhm. "You drive in a car and you drive a lot; nobody can deny it's an option, even if you do nothing wrong."
Böhm had that reinforced doubly this year. First, his car was hit by a bus that ran a red light coming off the Autobahn in May, then he narrowly avoided the massive avalanche that killed 11 on Manaslu in September. "For me," he said, "an avalanche death is still not normal."
Atkins agreed. "It's never normal when a young, fit, fun-loving person dies."
"But," Bergeron argued, "it's becoming more accepted."
Karl Birkeland, the director of the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center, thinks the numbers tell a different story entirely. "What I'm amazed about is that we've seen such an explosive increase in backcountry use over the past 20 years, with only a small increase in the annual number of avalanche fatalities," he said, crediting enhanced education.
There's hope, in other words. A lot of hope, argues Jill Fredston, an Alaska-based avalanche expert and author. But like many aspects of avalanches, then as now, it comes down to a crucial choice ... and one's willingness to sacrifice the rush.
"If a given person makes it a priority not to die in an avalanche," Fredston said, "he or she stands a very good chance of living a long, happy life in the mountains."