In the first week of 2020, 1,000 tons of snow in the form of a class 3 avalanche careened over 900 feet down the hill in Kellogg, Idaho, at Silver Mountain, killing three people and injuring several others.
That morning, about a dozen skiers and boarders traversed their way across the top of a run, called 16-1, on the resort’s secondary mountain, Wardner Peak. As they moved across, they triggered the avalanche, releasing the deadly wave of snow.
As a skier, I used to believe that the orange and black boundary ropes were a trusty barrier between me and the extraordinary dangers of avalanches. But the Silver Mountain slide occurred inside the boundaries, making the horrific event even more alarming.
Suddenly, the awareness of front-country danger hit close to home — I realized that in addition to the usual potential for injury, I had to heighten my awareness of unstable snowpack.
Still, it is more common for avalanches to occur in the backcountry or unmanaged mountain zones. According to a 2013 Washington State Hazard Mitigation plan, avalanches occur frequently each year and kill one to two people annually in the Northwest (about 25-35 deaths annually in the U.S.).
Avalanches have killed more people in Washington than any other hazard during the past century. In 90% of avalanche fatalities, the weight of the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggered the slide.
It is a human privilege to explore and seek adventure. It’s how we evolve. But it’s also a form of narcissism that drives us into places where we can experience a unique beauty or undisturbed powder. It’s this drive that makes us go deeper than the last group under the assumption that nature can be outsmarted, outrun and conquered. Adventuring into avalanche terrain is like rattling a lion’s cage, then unlocking the gate just to see if the newly released creature can be outrun.
As a skiing and boarding community, we need to be more aware that avalanches are a danger to all, not just those riding the backcountry or heli-skiing (skiing out of a helicopter) into untouched terrain. Even more so, we need to work harder to equip ourselves with the life-saving gear and knowledge that gives us a chance of surviving on the slopes if disaster strikes.
Mike Gladstone is a volunteer paramedic with Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol and has been for 20 years.
“Throughout the years, I have been exposed to the professionalism of the Crystal Mountain Pro Patrol and it never ceases to amaze me at how good they are at their job of avalanche safety mitigation,” he said.
The trust we put in Ski Patrol is not misplaced, but must be taken with a grain of salt and an understanding of their ultimate purpose.
“My perspective on avalanches is I think I have a healthy respect for them,” Gladstone said. “I have witnessed the aftermath of large avalanches and Mother Nature always impresses me. I have worked on victims of avalanches and the outcomes were not good.”
It is up to each individual recreationist when they put their own lives in danger. But when they endanger the lives of other skiers in their group and the subsequent rescuers — and threaten to destroy the lives of those they leave behind it — it is no longer a decision being made in a vacuum.
Humans are not solitary creatures. The price we pay for the joy obtained through thrill-seeking costs somebody, and it’s often the innocents who are waiting for us at home by the fire who suffer the most.
If you have a love for hitting the slopes like so many do, educate yourself, be prepared and safely embrace every deep turn and fast groomer (smooth runs with no trees) a mountain has to offer.
Be safe, but most importantly, be respectful of the forces beyond your control and know when to save it for another day.