The White Blog 4

A continuing discussion of all things backcountry and avalanche related

(Ed’s note: The White Blog is a regular series: WTB 3, WTB 2, WTB 1.)

By John Clary Davies
Published: February 4, 2011

The first time I turned my beacon on while skiing in-bounds was because I had to. It had snowed something ridiculous at Mount Baker, and somebody had recently died of asphyxiation after going into a tree well upside down.

As it continued to dump big, Mount Baker’s marketing director, Gwyn Howat, stood at the bottom of Chair 6, which accesses lots of great tree skiing. Howat had an air of seriousness, like everything had just gotten really real. I stood up taller and checked my it's-a-great-pow-day anticipation. She was stopping every rider to see if they were packing avi gear and had a partner--otherwise, you weren't getting on the lift. Beacon, shovel, probe? I passed the test. Partner? Not exactly. Eventually she paired me with another singleton, but as we unloaded, we went separate ways.

That morning a volunteer in the parking lot handed me a brochure on Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, or NARSID. It was the first time I had heard of NARSID.

NARSIDs account for about 10 percent of annual ski and snowboard fatalities, according to the Northwest Avalanche Insitute's Paul Baugher, who has been studying NARSID for 20 years. Baugher also wrote that brochure. In fact, statistics show, the chance of dying in an avalanche outside the boundaries of a ski resort is the same as dying by NARSID on a non-groomed run.

“The difference is that the guy going out of the gate has a partner, a plan, knowledge and rescue skills," says Baugher. "One risk is appreciated and the other one isn't, but the mortality rate is the same." In NARSID cases, he added, "Most people have partners, but they end up down at the chairlift waiting [until it's too late.]”

That day at Baker was four years ago. I hadn't given NARSID much thought since then until I started doing research for this blog. By mid-January, five people have died in accidents classified as NARSID this season.

Tree wells claimed two lives in ten days at Whitefish Mountain resort, another at China Peak Resort, Calif., and another on a cat skiing trip at Retallack. And another died while inverted with his head in a creek at Whistler.

In yet another incident at Whitefish, a skier named Pete Lev fell headfirst into a tree well. He was skiing inbounds with backcountry gear, including an Avalung II, and he survived. Grateful, Lev wrote an email to Black Diamond--subject: "My Avalung II saved my life!" You can read Lev’s letter here, and the TGR forum thread it inspired here.

So, what are you going to do the next time you're skiing trees on a big day?

• Speaking of snow-immersion, Rachael Burks confirms that, yes, it's frightening. Check out the Discrete TV episode here.

• A cool video demonstrating helicopter avalanche control work in Canada.

• Sunshine Village, near Banff, Alberta, fired four of its patrollers in the wake of a first-year redcoat catching the son of the resort’s owner and four of the his friends skiing in a closed area. Apparently the owner's son threatened to "make the patrolmen pay," and the patroller who caught him was fired after refusing to write a letter of apology following the incident. They’ll be seeing each other in court soon, according to a report on Adventure Journal.

• On Jan. 29, a slide on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula “nearly” killed four people. I liked the following line from the Alaska Dispatch's report of the accident: "If you don't know what a run-out area is, or how to recognize one, the authorities say you probably shouldn't be out in the backcountry."

• Former freeskiing champion Kit Deslauriers on avalanche safety: "The mountains are always in charge."

• Volume 5 of a book that looks at fatal Canadian slides, Avalanche Accidents in Canada, reports that one third of victims in 155 avalanche deaths between 1996 and 2007 didn't have avalanche transceivers.