More people than ever are passing on lift tickets in favor of the more technical backcountry winter experience. But the prospect of getting fresh tracks out of bounds or in the wilderness comes with the risk of injury or death due to an avalanche.
Last week served as a grim reminder. On Jan. 15, the U.S. Forest Service Sawtooth Avalanche Center rated the avalanche danger “considerable” when a snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche near Baker Lake north of Ketchum at an elevation of about 9,000 feet.
Sawtooth Snowmobile Club President C.J. Gorringe visited the site of the avalanche two days later.
“A lot of people had ridden in that area before and nothing happened to them,” Gorringe said. “The biggest thing to remember is to check the [Sawtooth Avalanche Center] avalanche forecast and know before you go.”
Sawtooth Avalanche Center Director Scott Savage updates and manages the center’s daily avalanche forecasting website, providing the kind of vital safety information necessary for an increasing number of backcountry enthusiasts. Typically, he said that avalanche danger tends to be highest during or immediately after a snowstorm or wind event. On Tuesday, the avalanche danger was still rated “considerable” at upper elevations, with more snow on the way.
“Whenever there’s a fatality, we take a long hard look at how we’re doing things,” Savage said. “Ultimately our goal is to give people the information they need to avoid an avalanche. This year, the vast majority of natural and human-triggered avalanches are taking place in wind-loaded areas.”
Wind loading occurs quickly on specific areas of slopes and ridges, Savage said, leaving smooth “pillows” or drifts, dunes and wave-like formations on the snow surface.
Additional clues that danger is underfoot include encounters with a stiffer-than-usual snow surface and/or the emergence of cracks in the snow reaching across the terrain.
“Wind can add up to 10 times the amount of snow than a snowstorm can,” Savage said.
About 1.4 million Americans skied or snowboarded in the backcountry in the winter of 2017-18, more than twice the number in 2010, according to the Snowsports Industries of America.
During that year, 25 people were killed in the backcountry by snow slides, Avalanche.org reported. They included nine skiers, two snowboarders and 12 snowmobilers. Two people died while hiking, climbing or snowshoeing.
Paddy McIlvoy, the managing partner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, said that backcountry gear sales are on the rise despite the inherent risks of the sport.
“Not only is backcountry gear the fastest growing segment of the ski gear industry, it’s the only growing segment of the industry, and we’re about as passionate about it as you can get,” McIlvoy said.
Very few resort areas have the variety of backcountry terrain that Sun Valley does, he said, from the popular and relatively safe terrain at “The Cross” near Galena Summit, to steeper, technical ski mountaineering in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Gorringe said snowmobilers are often carrying a skier or snowboarder to the tops of hills for a ride.
“Snowmobiles have gotten more powerful, so people are getting higher up,” he said. “We have the opportunity to move fast, but we can also be more exposed going up a hill. You may not have the opportunity to see a slide and get out of the way.”
McIlvoy recommends that his backcountry gear buyers hire an experienced local guide from outfits like Sawtooth Mountain Guides or Sun Valley Guides, and/or take a free avalanche safety class offered by the Sawtooth Avalanche Center.
Lighter gear, more sophisticated avalanche beacons for locating partners in the snow, and inflatable air packs to stay atop a slide have accompanied the consumer backcountry boom, according to McIlvoy.
“This confluence of technologies has greatly increased the number of skiers in the backcountry, but these are no substitute for knowledge and good decision-making,” he said.
McIlvoy said winter backcountry skiing is more than an athletic endeavor. Partners wear avalanche beacons that help identify their positions in case of a slide, and carry collapsible probes and shovels that can save lives if someone gets buried. They learn to study snow layers and surrounding terrain to measure risk.
“It’s an intellectual game and a partnership,” he said. “There is a big difference between being safe due to luck and being safe due to making good decisions. Knowing the difference will have a lot to do with your longevity as a backcountry skier.”
Savage said the winter season so far has provided a “double whammy” of avalanche dangers, with heavy snow over “widespread persistent weak layers” of sugary crystals and other slippery layers that could take weeks to strengthen into a solid snowpack.
“By spring when the layers have strengthened or coalesced the avalanche danger will go down more quickly after a snowstorm,” he said.
For the local avalanche forecast and information about avalanche safety classes, go to sawtoothavalanche.com/forecasts/#/.