Jan 09 2013

Should airbags packs be required?

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.

Based on the evidence, I wasn’t the only one making solo tracks on day when avalanches claimed two in-bounds.

And yet, the Sierra Avalanche Center was not wrong to call the avalanche danger considerable on those days, or moderate with pockets of considerable. My hats off to them for not crying “wolf” but calling it accurately. What no one expected was that the pockets of considerable would exist in-bounds. It just so happened that I went on a tour the same day very near to where the snowboarder was killed at Donner Ski Ranch of all places. I saw the avalanche path and thought it was interesting but not alarming. I headed up and out of bounds from Sugar Bowl’s Judah parking lot fully aware that avalanche danger existed due to the incident at Squaw. I went solo so I knew I couldn’t take any stupid chances and wound my way up to Flower Ridge and the microwave towers along a mellow line, on the edge of Sugar Bowl’s boundary.

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?

© 2013

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcel.f.almeida Marcel Furtado Almeida

    Pretty clear to me that ski resorts should start providing avy safe gear to patrols as a work tool. We don’t expect an employee to buy a computer to use at work, so to expect a ski patrol to buy his avy gear to be safe at avy prone terrain is not fair! At the very least there should be some sort of subsidized gear for resort employees. Beacon, probe, shovel, airbag pack should all be in this class!

  • http://ThompsonPass.Com/ Matt Kinney

    Not only should all avalanche controlling patrollers have an air pack, but also snocat guides, heliguides and  their client.  Of course every resort is different and some it may not be needed.  The company should supply the pack.  A beacon, probe and shovels something every guide or patroller should own anyway. The reason being its easy and a no brainer in that weight is not an issue with top-down skiing.  It’s also the best available technology. If I was heliguide I would not hesitate to carry in regardless of snow conditions.   If I was a sledhead this would be the most important thing on my sled.

    Meanwhile those of who use fairer means to access bit mountain terrain are stuck with carrying much more weight  than mechanized or lift served. In reality I find it difficult  to figure an airbag into my day-to-day touring til they designed it  better and larger.  At this time none of them have the room for me to carry what I need to carry.   I soooo wish they did!  But even the largest air pack would not work for me. Others though feel good about them.  

    With that said, these packs are the best bet to surviving a slide outside getting the  education and experience to keep from getting caught in the first place.  The other day someone asked me about getting an airbag.  They had not even taken Level 1.  That’s the problem with balloons, it is the sense that avalanches are survivable.  I never feel that way with a beacon.   

  • teletilyouresmelly

    Number one, it doesn’t seem like patrollers should be doing avy control work alone.  Second, I do think everyone in travelling in avy terrain should carry an airbag pack- people go so far as to say the will exclude a partner if they don’t have a beacon but airbag packs are much more effective and no one would ever say that- makes no sense.   And ski areas should provide the needed saftey equipement to patrollers.  They wouldn’t need one per patroller, just several that could be made available for when doing control work. 

  • skier6

    I heard, via a friend that all the patrollers at Telluride are wearing them now. Not sure if they are supplied by the mountain..

  • Sam Skovgaard

    Just like other employers provide safety equipment, I see no reason why ski resorts shouldn’t provide (or reimburse) airbags for patrol when they are doing mitigation work. I wouldn’t go so far as to require their use, but if there is good evidence that airbags provide a significant improvement in safety (is anyone familiar with any research on the subject), I think big ski resorts can afford it.