A few months ago I was surfing the internet looking for skis and jackets for the upcoming season. To my surprise, I discovered a new type of activity — sidecountry skiing. Sidecountry is roughly defined as out-of-bounds, backcountry terrain that is accessed from a ski area lift. The attraction is obvious; the term implies that it is an easy way to ease into backcountry skiing. It offers fresh powder, solitude and a sense of adventure, which is only a few pole pushes away.
It is not clear how the term sidecountry came about, but since its inception the phrase has been widely used by marketing departments trying to convince us that there is a new and exciting trend we can be a part of with very little effort. All you need, they say, is this new jacket and skis and you are on your way to ski the backcountry.
Here’s the truth from avalanche professionals: sidecountry doesn’t actually exist.
Think about it.
It’s for this reason that no sidecountry-specific avalanche rescue gear exists.
Although the term “sidecountry” implies that it is kinder and gentler than the “backcountry,” the forces of nature don’t care how close a slope is to a ski area. For instance, there were seven fatalities in the sidecountry just last year — and a similar number the year before. Within the ski boundary line in the last six winters (including this one) there were 11 inbound avalanche fatalities (four of those fatalities were ski patrollers doing avalanche control).
This is because ski areas spend a lot of time to ensure their inbound slopes are reasonably safe. Ski patrollers work hard to trigger avalanches on unstable slopes; they mix and stir the different layers in the snowpack with explosives. Then there’s the ski traffic, which also helps to mix the snow.
Although not 100 percent safe, statistics clearly show avalanche control efforts work.
Skiing the backcountry is fun, exciting, but it can also be dangerous — regardless of how we access it.
Remember, once a skier or snowboarder moves outside the ski area boundary, they are on their own. If and when things go wrong, that rider needs to be able to take care of themselves.
Avalanche folks have thought about how to raise awareness on the risks of sidecountry riding for a few years now. It was the guys from the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, in Montana, who first took notice and action. You can see some of their work at http://www.mtavalanche.com/sidecountry. Recently, the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center published a local Juneau video that highlights the hazards of venturing outside the ski area boundary.
In the Pacific Northwest, the past 10 days have seen heightened avalanche activity. Skiers and snowboarders were triggering avalanches inside ski areas in Washington state and in the Sierra Mountains of California. It all started with one skier getting fully buried at Crystal Mountain Ski Area. Over the holiday weekend, several more people were caught in avalanches inside ski area boundaries. These avalanches took the life of a snowboarder at Donner Ski Ranch. They also claimed a ski patroller, with 28 years of experience, who was doing avalanche mitigation work at Alpine Meadows Ski Area.
When I look at these avalanches, I find one obvious common denominator: All these mountains received massive snow falls and winds during or shortly before these avalanches occurred.
We all know that large snow falls and winds can cause avalanches. What we tend to forget, however, is that unusual weather causes unusual avalanches. This happened last spring here in Southeast when an unusual winter was followed by unusual glide avalanches; the folks in the Sierra Mountains saw a similar event last weekend.
When I get too excited about a remarkably large snowfall, I try to remind myself that beyond a certain point, additional snow fall doesn’t really increase the ski quality. It does, however, dramatically increase the avalanche danger.
• Ron Simenhois is an avalanche forecaster who lives in North Douglas. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.