We’re fully invested in the new season now. The calendar has flipped over to a new year and there’s enough snow to ski just about anywhere. Here in the Tahoe area the avalanche hazard is in dispute. It’s not that the BC community doesn’t know the avy lizards are lurking. Hell, they killed two people the day before Christmas and it wasn’t out of bounds, it was INSIDE the boundary in both cases and the lizards had even warned us all the day before at Squaw Valley’s KT — again, an inside job.
The snow was spongy, with occasional hollow spots. I hadn’t read the avy report, but I can assure you, it was moderate in most places, except for those pockets of considerable danger. Near the top my feet didn’t detect them so much as the hair on my back did. The snow was sculpted by wind and it wasn’t worth the risk to take the best line due North. If a slab cut loose there it would surely cause trouble in the trees that waited patiently below.
Instead I took the easy line along the ridge and didn’t point the skis north and down until the slope bent slowly that way. The turns were smooth and creamy and even if they weren’t steep, they were worth the effort to savor them.
It wasn’t until I got home and checked in on the web that I learned someone had died in the avalanche path I saw at Donner Ski Ranch. It didn’t look like that big of a path but apparently nobody bothered to alert ski patrol and patrol didn’t know there was a man under the debris.
Then I found out a patroller at Alpine Meadows was also caught, but his status was unclear. Bill Foster, a 23 year patrol veteran died later in the hospital, a man whose name didn’t ring any bells in the tombs of my memory, but his face did look familiar. No doubt I had met him once on the slopes there, or at a local slide show, or in Albertson’s. They both seemed so random, and unexpected, and their deaths underscored the spooky nature of Tahoe’s holiday snowpack.
Immediately I wondered if wearing an airbag pack might have saved Foster, the patroller who was caught in an avalanche while doing control work at Alpine Meadows. Later I learned he died from trauma, so maybe not. I don’t know the details, but it did raise the question of whether an airbag pack should have been part of the equation. I can sort of understand why he didn’t have one since avalanches are pretty predictable in the Sierra and thus easy to avoid. On the other hand as a ski patroller the exposure and risk to avalanches are exponentially higher, even in California.
If you’re regularly flirting with avalanches an airbag pack is a pretty obvious piece of safety equipment you should have if you can afford it. A patroller might be financially unable to. Theoretically a resort could be strapped as well, but exposing employees to such danger implies a responsibility to provide such safety equipment regardless. What do you think?