The Day Nothing Happened
On a Wednesday morning in April, a surprise seven inches of dense powder blanketed the northern Rockies of Colorado. The snow began falling shortly after Summit County's resorts closed for the day on Tuesday and hammered for a couple of hours straight before tapering off overnight. If you were in town, you knew the next day was going to be good.
I awoke to read the local avalanche forecast early Wednesday morning. Every aspect and elevation was rated "moderate" by the state forecast center -- Level 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. The fresh powder fell on a relatively stable snowpack, but the forecast warned of the same deep-slab instabilities that had been lurking all season.
I rode my first lift at Breckenridge around 8:45 a.m. and headed straight for the above-treeline slopes, where the snow promised to be deeper. The moment I reached the alpine, it was obvious the crowds were going to be thick, especially for a midweek April day.
Thanks to the largest U.S. terrain expansion in a decade -- 543 new acres, offering a 23 percent increase in skiable terrain -- Breckenridge's Peak 6 will be lift accessed and mitigated by professional avalanche technicians this season, which started Friday with Breckenridge's opening day.
But last winter, Peak 6 was still backcountry terrain. And on that Wednesday, by the time I met up with two friends and exited a backcountry-access gate to ski the north-facing steeps just beyond the resort -- where fresh powder often lasts longer, albeit without any avalanche control or ski patrol -- it seemed like 40 or 50 people were already out there. A few years back, you might have seen three or four other people on those runs.
Backcountry participation continues to rise
More and more ski resorts around North America are opening their boundary gates and allowing users to travel into uncontrolled, backcountry terrain. According to SnowSports Industries America, some 5 million skiers and riders are now exploring the backcountry, one of the highest growth sectors in the industry.
Much of that increase is due to the placement of the backcountry-access gate. Breckenridge ski patrollers had noticed more and more tracks illegally cutting under ropes high on the mountain, so two years ago, the resort got permission from the U.S. Forest Service -- which leases the land to the resort -- to add a gate that made the Peak 6 terrain easier to reach. The Forest Service agreed to place a gate at the top of the resort, complete with the requisite warnings.
"We wanted to make sure the access point reflected the use, so that people were actually going by signs that said, 'You are leaving the ski area. You are on your own. Here's the avalanche information center number if you choose to call it,'" said Dillon Ranger District snow ranger Shelly Grail Braudis.
Thanks to the new gate, to access the then-uncontrolled snow on Peak 6, instead of a long approach using climbing skins, you now simply skied off a lift and out the gate then bootpacked up a ridge for 15 minutes. That would bring you to the top of a radical cirque with a menu of 40- to 45-degree runs beneath your ski tips. Most of the lines avalanche naturally multiple times per season, meaning the slope is steep enough that the snow does not need a human trigger or dynamite to break free and rumble downhill. When you add the weight of a human being -- or many of them -- the risk is heightened.
Situating a gate to allow easier access to backcountry terrain marks a change in management strategy for the Forest Service.
"Back in the day, the thought was to make the access points hard to get to, so only the people who know what they're doing will go there," Grail Braudis said. That proved not to be a good model, as it invited users to duck ropes. "We can't control what people are going to do, but we can give them the best tools as far as education to make the right choice."
Like Peak 6, the resort-accessed backcountry scene across western North America has exploded in recent years. Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado sits adjacent to an avalanche-prone yet wildly popular backcountry zone called Bear Creek; Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming abuts a range of high-profile steep terrain just beyond its boundaries; most Utah resorts provide gate access to heavily trafficked backcountry steeps; and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia is almost as famous for its surrounding out-of-bounds runs as for its legendary inbounds terrain.
Fatter skis and lighter gear have made it easier to ski fresh, out-of-bounds snow, and increased media attention on the backcountry, from outlets including this one, plays a role as well.
But on that Wednesday in April, the crowds were not following the unofficial laws of survival. Despite the warning signs and all the education available, a rough survey told us one in three people riding the steeps beyond the ropes carried no backpack or avalanche-rescue tools, including a shovel, probe and transceiver, which are crucial in case of an avalanche burial.
In a backcountry vacuum where each person is somehow unconnected to the rest, that would be fine. But in an environment like the one we found ourselves in that day, if an avalanche had struck, for instance, the group of seven we saw dropping 40-degree chutes without safety gear, most likely the first thing they would do is shout for someone with rescue gear to help them. And that, in my opinion, should not be part of this conversation -- at least not as a first line of defense.
The fact that no avalanche occurred is the most significant part. A lot of unprepared people walked away feeling like they predicted the risk accurately.Devon O'Neil
You can do simple things to drastically increase your chances, or your partners' chances, of surviving an accident. Get educated, read the avalanche forecast and learn to make smart decisions. Buy the required safety gear, carry it with you and know how to operate each tool. You can be mindful of your route selection and never drop in on other skiers or riders who are in harm's way below you.
Maybe the non-backpack-wearing folks had never heard of an avalanche before. I doubt it. Like other resorts across the country, the Breckenridge Ski Patrol has invested significant time and resources in recent seasons to stage free monthly avalanche education seminars, complete with free pizza and giveaways, tailored for new backcountry travelers.
After one run, my friend Pascal, a local forestry worker who has ridden Peak 6 since the '90s, left the scene without looking back.
"I just didn't want to be a part of it. People were hiking on the cornice," he said later, referring to an overhanging lip of snow that can collapse without warning. "They didn't even know where they were."
This story is not about Pascal or me or any other individual who was out there. The fact that no avalanche occurred is the most significant part of the scenario. Because a lot of unprepared people walked away feeling like they predicted the risk accurately. They trust their judgment more now, feel even less of a need to prepare. Which, in an age of easier backcountry access, is simply unsustainable.
Now that Peak 6 is inbounds terrain, the same frenzied scene we witnessed last April won't be an issue. The steep cirque will be safer now. But the problem isn't going away. Plenty of other avalanche terrain lurks just north of the new boundary, and with a Forest Service backcountry-access gate planned for the high-alpine ridge above that terrain, you can bet people are going to test it before long.
When they do, every day that passes without incident will feed the omnipresent, yet too often false, sense of security that hovers over this sport. Which is why the days when nothing happens are often the most dangerous of them all.