Is the Ride Worth the Risk?

The Reality of Life + Death in Our Winter Backcountry

It’s your day off, and Mother Nature has finally delivered a hefty snowstorm. Your crew meets at a new trailhead, surrounded by pillows of powder and trees weighed down with last night’s delivery of the good stuff. Everyone’s switching their bindings, putting on their gear and getting ready for the ascent. With the amount of snow that fell last night, you all decide last minute that you’re going to commit to something steep. A few members of the crew have avalanche training, and pretty much everyone is qualified to handle this terrain.

After what feels like hours of touring up a steep ridge, you all switch your gear to downhill as quickly as possible, grins on your faces, ready to eat up fresh powder. The first friend drops in taking rich, deep turns. Yips of excitement echo through the bowl below. You check the time, and while your eyes are off the slope, a slide is triggered with one of your best friends in the fall line. Sheer panic fills your body; a pit hits your stomach. You can see their bright jacket down below. By the grace of luck and the skin of their teeth, they skated out of the slide safely. You start questioning everything that happened that morning. Who checked reports? Did we check everyone’s gear? Does everyone have proper gear? Should we report this? The excitement of the first big winter storm combined with a last-minute terrain change caused common sense to fly out the window.

Here, we’ve painted a picture that is too often a reality. This time, with an outcome of no fatalities. It really sets in here that you and your friends may not always be so lucky …

Photo by Townsend Bessent

Avalanche Education + Safety

In Colorado and surrounding states, we have access to a wide variety of knowledgeable resources for avalanche safety conditions. “Colorado Information Avalanche Center (CIAC), American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), avalanche.org and Know Before You Go (KBYG.org) are fantastic resources and a great way to get your knowledge base going,” shares Ethan Greene, director of CIAC. “The most important thing is to start somewhere. If your goal is to recreate in avalanche terrain, taking a course in the field with a professional is very helpful.”

Greene says that CIAC and other state agencies are now focusing on new ways to reach skiers and riders, social media being a huge player. “We don’t want to prejudge people where they are; we just want to give them access to [information] and give them the opportunity to know more,” he explains. By leaning more on the reach of Instagram, Greene feels they can access a young demographic looking to build the knowledge about avalanche terrain and mitigation of safety.

In the Vail Valley, we are always reaching for the next big adventure; it’s part of the culture. Most of us do the training, take the classes, and we’ve been skiing our whole lives. We ride and hike these trails in the summer and slice through snow on them in the winter; these steep slopes are our home. According to avalanche.orgwith statistics from the CIAC, seven avalanche-related deaths happened in Colorado last season. If we think we’re well educated, why do these near-death experiences and fatalities continue to happen every year?

“We all do risky behavior. Even though you might be the most celebrated soccer mom on your block, do you text and drive? Rather than finger pointing, we really need to step back as a community and say ‘what exactly happened,’ and just embrace that we do live in a community where we encourage risky behavior,” emphasizes Kelli Rohrig, Vail local, lead AIARE instructor, head of avalanche education with Paragon Guides, co-founder of The Glide Project and backcountry ski heuristic researcher.

In anything, especially outdoor sports, as we progress in skill level, we want to push the envelope. More challenging terrain, in more remote areas, farther away from emergency resources — it all goes hand in hand.

As a seasoned patroller, previous CIAC forecaster, AIARE certified guide and instructor, Kreston Rohrig understands the thrill and indescribable joy that comes with skiing in avalanche terrain.

“Honestly there’s nothing more fun than skiing a big, steep line in a foot of powder,” he shares. “But, choosing what day and what conditions are appropriate, that’s the real challenge.”

Advice from the Experts

Having a safe day in avalanche terrain of the backcountry starts with being able to clearly identify and assess the risk of where you want to recreate.

“You can ski every day, all day, any time of year, be it high danger or low danger, but you have to choose appropriate terrain for reported conditions and manage the risk,” says Kreston Rohrig. “If you’re skiing big consequential avalanche terrain on a high danger day, that’s playing Russian Roulette — barely taking one bullet out of the gun.”

When assessing and pursuing risk, we have to think about the feedback loop that develops in our brain. If we do something and get hurt or encounter an avalanche, we remember and formulate decisions to reduce the risk the next time we pursue a similar event. With skiing in the backcountry, the feedback loop is often broken. Without digging a pit and truly uncovering what’s going on underneath, it’s hard to predict the outcome of what’s unfolding below you. “It’s easy to see a 30-foot wave and know it’s dangerous,” he adds. “It’s not always easy to see a complex snowpack structure and be able to apply fracture dynamics in real time.”

Gain knowledge and apply it. Check daily conditions. Make educated and safe decisions. Skiers and riders who have been victim to the wrath of avalanches have taken all these precautionary steps and still had a fatal day in the backcountry … why? At some point, we need to recognize the role collective attitudes and cultural barriers play.

“There’s people who ski [avalanche terrain] every day and, 99 times out of 100, nothing happens, and that creates a pretty strong feedback loop that ‘we’re crushing it; we’re doing this right; we’ve got this.’ Those people certainly don’t want to be told they’re not doing it right,” says Kreston Rohrig.

Experience, unfortunately, doesn’t equal humility — a great thing to remember in any aspect of life but especially with skiing in the backcountry. Kelli Rohrig is someone who is quite accustomed to the egotism that can come along with backcountry knowledge. In her recent survey of skiers’ recovery and gear knowledge, specifically in the East Vail Chutes, she experienced a lot of snide remarks and rude interactions.

“It’s a hostile environment and it’s just through culture. It’s been that way for 20 years,” she shares. “Back in the day, even when there were few skiers, it’s been an attitude of ‘this is my area, what are you doing here?’”

Community Outreach

When interviewing Kelli Rohrig for this piece, we discussed ways to educate East Vail skiers on improved safety practices on some of the state’s steepest slopes. “Truth be told, a lot of East Vail skiers just don’t want to hear it,” she says. “Or fatality wise, if you’re new in town, you really have no idea how many fatalities have been there. It’s not like there’s a poster at the gate listing the fatalities; even if there was, I think someone would probably take it down.”

Kelli Rohrig has some great ideas, like breaking down price barriers for rescue classes and educating youth on proper risk assessment through initiatives like The Glide Project, to remind their elder peers that they’re making dicey decisions. Ultimately, the attitude around winter backcountry culture needs to shift and education of safety practices need to be more financially accessible to the community.

Snow sports are celebrated here in the winter, as they should be, as there are few things that replicate flying or floating the way skiing does. For many, the added challenge and exhilaration of backcountry skiing and riding offers even more of that life-affirming feeling of “why we live here.” Kelli Rohrig reminds us that backcountry skiing is not a death wish, it’s the decisions around it that can determine an outcome.

“This isn’t this terrible activity that people go out and die,” she says. “This is an activity that is actually incredibly good for people’s mental health. It’s what saves me, summer and winter.”

As long as we have a backcountry to explore, people will climb it to ride steep slopes of untouched powder. It’s no secret that the snowpack is changing with our ever-warming climate, a reality that will continue to impact this community and our winters in a very significant way. Perhaps, if we move together on a track of more knowledge and deeper reverence for the incredible forces of nature that are all around us, not only will we give more life and longevity to our adventurous Valley, but we’ll give it to the backcountry, too.

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