It was untouched powder and fall-line adrenaline that lured two US Olympic hopefuls, Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, out-of-bounds as the pair descended Austria’s 10,026-foot Gaislachkogl peak in early January. As the young men skied off-piste into a wild valley, they triggered a powerful avalanche that swept them down the huge mountainside and buried them under some 13 feet of cement-hard snow.
Both Berlack, 20, and Astle, 19, had skied most of their lives. They were in Austria training with the US Ski Team Development Team. Berlack was from New Hampshire and had attended Burke Mountain Academy, a Vermont school for aspiring skiers where his father coached the sport. His mother was also a ski coach. Astle grew up in Utah and had received avalanche safety training. Yet neither exhibited the most basic safety knowledge. They reportedly had no avalanche safety equipment. Why did these elite skiers leave a safe run, completely unprepared, and ski to their death?
Avalanches are a catastrophic fact-of-life in the mountains. After 5 minutes under the snow, a victim still has about an 80 percent chance of survival. At 15 minutes, survival rates go down to 30 percent, dropping to roughly zero after 30 minutes. Trauma kills 24 percent of victims. Avalanches rarely release their victims alive, so the first goal is to avoid them.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Austria, however, it became clear from statements by their teammates that Berlack and Astle’s bad judgment that day was not unusual. Avalanche safety remains an afterthought for skiers from the top tier of the sport to thrill-seeking amateurs. And, without more concern over safety and tighter legal standards, the consequences will be increasingly deadly.
Avalanche deaths in the United States have more than doubled in the last two decades. Last winter saw 35 fatalities, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Nearly all the victims were able-bodied outdoor enthusiasts skiing, snowmobiling, or climbing in the backcountry. More than 90 percent of fatal avalanches are self-triggered. Sadly, most victims are young.
At the same time, skiers are seeking ever-greater thrills. Sales of backcountry ski gear doubled between 2010 and 2011 alone. Sidecountry skiing — skiing in enticingly white and steep areas adjacent to ski runs — is exploding. To those without sufficient knowledge, these areas feel safe. They are within sight of the lifts and seemingly close to resort services. But skiers’ ignorance creates a false sense of safety: One side is controlled slopes, bombed to remove avalanche risk; the other side is raw avalanche terrain, wild and dangerous.
Sports media feeds into the excitement, promoting extreme sports. Ski resorts have learned that advertising a high-adrenaline experience is good for business.
Jackson Hole Resort in Wyoming proudly states on its website that it “opened the gates on the perimeter. . . allowing skiers and snowboarders to explore the thousands of acres of backcountry skiing that lie just beyond the boundaries.” Backcountry that is avalanche terrain, but still is promoted — through guided tours — as “secret runs and the best snow conditions.” The resort has no liability for, and does not monitor, the guests who pass through those gates.
In Colorado, the National Forest Service access gates at Telluride Ski Resort also entice skiers. At one point on the mountain, one side of a ridge is in-bounds and controlled; the other side is backcountry National Forest land. Avalanche prevention bombing of resort runs can actually lead to avalanches on the backcountry side. Although Telluride closes the ridge during bombing to prevent public access, this exemplifies the potential dangers of sidecountry skiing.
Many resorts, including Jackson Hole, offer safety instruction but few mandates. Although ski liability is determined on a state-by-state basis, in general resorts are protected by the legal principle of the assumption of risk. Companies that own resorts are not liable for risks inherent to skiing, or those the victim was aware of. So there is little reason not to facilitate unprotected backcountry access.
Indeed, doing away with the “Look Good, Ski Fast, Safety Third” attitude that has long permeated the sport will require a fundamental shift. There is much that can be done to improve snow safety in the United States.
Those who do go into avalanche terrain must have safety instruction and equipment: a transceiver that emits a location beacon, a probe to help find the victim, and a shovel, at the minimum. Without a transceiver, the situation is needle-in-a-haystack hunt over a rubble field that can stretch to a mile on a mountainside.
There is a government role, too. In Canada, for example, a tragic avalanche accident in 2003 that buried a school group of 17 skiers and killed seven 10th-graders led the government agency Parks Canada to develop avalanche risk assessment and public dissemination practices that now lead the world. The Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale is combined with snowpack data to give a good estimate of the danger of a particular place. The Avaluator tool allows skiers to evaluate risk using green, yellow, and red designations, allowing for wiser decisions and accident prevention. Maps with highlighted avalanche zones are posted at trailheads. Simple avalanche risk maps similar to weather maps and avalanche bulletins are disseminated in newspapers and on TV and radio. The Canadian Avalanche Centre, an excellent public resource, was opened. And as a result of these efforts, annual avalanche deaths have plummeted from about 30 per year to a handful.
There is no reason to think the United States can’t follow suit. The first step would be a bicoastal avalanche safety initiative with the establishment of well-funded facilities at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center. Regulation to stop ski resorts from promoting out-of-bounds skiing without in-depth and serious avalanche knowledge and equipment should be enacted. Snowmobiling groups must educate their membership and institute avalanche training as a component of licensure.
But the culture of skiing must also change. John Branch’s 2012 Pulitzer prize-winning multimedia article “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” for the New York Times chronicled the events that killed three expert skiers in Washington. A group of ski industry insiders purposely skied into a known avalanche area. The only person who turned back was a lift operator. She had no ego at stake and saw the avalanche hazard for what it was — too high.
In Austria, American and British ski team members raced to rescue Berlack and Astle. Despite a publicized avalanche warning, the young men had skied out of bounds into uncontrolled avalanche terrain with no transceiver or safety gear. They had no air bags or avalung under-snow breathing devices. None of the skiers were carrying avalanche rescue equipment.
By the time mountain professionals arrived with helicopters and dogs, it was too late. Berlack and Astle were dug out after 40 to 50 minutes, battered and dead.
Watch: A skier being dug out from an avalanche
Heidi Wyle is a biotechnology entrepreneur and president of the Massachusetts Women’s Forum. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the 2003 Connaught Creek avalanche tragedy that killed seven children and changed Canada’s relationship with its winter backcountry. She can be reached at email@example.com or at www.heidiwyleauthor.com.