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FOUR SEASONS: TRAGEDY PREVENTION 101

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 6 Apr 2013

DON’T get me wrong, I love writing this column, but the Four Seasons slot does have its downsides and chief among them is the fact that, due to long magazine lead-times, I have to write it almost two full weeks before you get to read it. As such, it is vulnerable to being overtaken by events. The column I’d originally written for today’s paper would have jarred so horribly with the tragic news from Glencoe Mountain last weekend – when Clackmananshire skier Daniel Maddox was killed in an avalanche while skiing just outside the resort boundary – that I’ve been given special dispensation to do a last-minute re-write.

Why draw attention to the fact that this is a re-write? Because I think some of the false assumptions I made in my original column are the kind of false assumptions that are commonly made throughout the skiing and snowboarding world, and I think that by going over what I originally wrote I might be able to shed a little light on the way backcountry skiers and snowboarders (myself included) think and behave.

My original column was a reflection on a recent spate of so-called “sidecountry” deaths at ski resorts across North America – incidents in which skiers and boarders have been killed while seeking out fresh snow just outside the safety of the ski resort boundary. I expressed concern that similar incidents could occur here in Scotland.

In retrospect, the most serious error I made in the piece was to draw a distinction between the risks faced by experienced skiers carrying all the correct avalanche rescue kit – experienced skiers like Mr Maddox – and less experienced skiers.

“I don’t worry so much about experienced skiers,” I wrote. “When they hop over a ski resort boundary rope they are properly prepared. But I worry that there are other, less clued-up skiers and boarders out there who, inspired by their example, will leave the pistes and follow them out of bounds. Next time you see that familiar line of little black dots crawling up to the top of Cairn Gorm [to ski out of bounds], see if you can spot how many are wearing backpacks. In my experience, it’s usually about 50 per cent. The ones without will have nowhere to put their avalanche probe, nowhere to keep a collapsible avvie shovel. If they don’t have a shovel or probe, they probably won’t be wearing a transceiver either, so if they get buried, that’s that – game over.”

How naive this all sounds now, in the light of last weekend’s events. Note my fixation with having the correct rescue kit and knowing how to use it. Mr Maddox was an experienced skier, yet he was buried under 13ft of avalanche debris.

Like most backcountry skiers, I always ski with the holy trinity of transceiver, shovel and probe, and I’ve had various refresher courses on how to use them over the years. I know what to do with all my shiny gear, then, but how good am I at predicting whether an avalanche is actually going to happen on the slope I’m about to ride? Honestly? Not so hot. And I suspect there might be many others out there who, like me, focus more on what to do in the event of an avalanche having happened and less on how to avoid getting caught up in an avalanche in the first place. This, I think, needs to change.

I should say at this point that I am in no way trying to suggest that Mr Maddox failed to understand the danger he was in. The avalanche risk posted by the Sportscotland Avalanche Information Service on the day he died was “considerable” or three out of five. Professional backcountry guiding companies routinely take clients into the hills when the risk is at this level. But I do think what happened at Glencoe should serve as a serious wake-up call to anyone who, like me, finds comfort in the fact that if an avalanche occurs, they’ll be equipped to deal with it. It’s great that so many backcountry skiers are now trained to locate and rescue avalanche victims. But if one good thing is to come out of Daniel Maddox’s death, I think the focus in the way we talk about avalanches needs to shift emphatically away from rescue, and towards avoidance.

[and, for the record, here's the original column...]

It’s a common sight after a big snowfall at CairnGorm Mountain: a long line of skiers and snowboarders snaking up to the 1,245m summit of Cairn Gorm, which lies just a few hundred metres outside the ski resort boundary. The goal of these sweaty pilgrims: to cut fresh tracks through light, fluffy, unbroken snow, either by riding back into the resort via the deliciously steep Coronation Wall, or by dropping over the other side of Cairn Gorm into Coire Raibert and heading towards the vast, white, wild expanse of the Cairngorm Plateau. Far be it for me to criticise: I’ve had some of my best ever snowboarding experiences after making exactly the same hike. But reports of a recent spate of so-called “sidecountry” deaths at ski resorts across North America provide a sobering reminder that the second you duck under that boundary rope, you’re entering a much more serious playground

The debate in the US and Canada is currently focused on whether the term “sidecountry” itself could be part of the problem, as it implies that terrain within striking distance of a ski lift is somehow not “proper” backcountry. Purists will tell you that in order to have an authentic backcountry experience you really have to slog miles out into the wilderness under your own steam, build yourself an igloo or a snowhole, catch and skin your own dinner and then cook it over an open fire. Trouble is, this attitude tends to give the impression that a 35-degree slope 100 metres outside a ski resort boundary is somehow less likely to avalanche than a similar slope in the middle of nowhere. And hey, if this slope we’re on does start to slide, the ski patrol from the resort will come and get us, right?

There are problems with this way of thinking. For a start, avalanches can happen on any slope between 30 and 45 degrees – they don’t really care how close the nearest ski hill is. Also, if you’re buried by an avalanche, even right next to a ski resort, chances are you’ll run out of air before the ski patrol can get to you. The people you’re skiing with are your best chance of rescue, but if you’re not wearing a transceiver, or if they don’t have the right rescue gear and know how to use it, then you’re in trouble.

Backcountry, sidecountry, slackcountry, whatever you call it, in the last few seasons there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people looking to get their snowsliding kicks outside the safe, controlled environment of the ski resort. New events like today’s Scottish Backcountry Festival in Aviemore and last month’s Coe Cup freeride event at Glencoe simply couldn’t have happened ten years ago, because back then backcountry skiing and snowboarding were still marginal activities. The people who take part in these events are mostly hardened backcountry enthusiasts – people who own their own avalanche rescue gear and have been trained in how to use it. When these guys hop over a ski resort boundary they are properly prepared. But I worry that there are other, less clued-up skiers and boarders out there who, inspired by their example, will leave the pistes and follow them out of bounds. In fact, this is already happening. Next time you see that familiar line of little black dots crawling up to the top of Cairn Gorm, see if you can spot how many are wearing backpacks. In my experience, it’s usually about 50 per cent with and 50 per cent without. The ones without will have nowhere to put their avalanche probe, nowhere to keep a collapsible avvie shovel. If they don’t have a shovel or probe, they probably won’t be wearing a transceiver either, so if they get buried, that’s that – game over.

I’ve previously criticised certain sections of the media for using the deaths of mountaineers this winter as a pretext for manufacturing a pointless debate about restricting access to Scotland’s mountains, but I do think more could be done to inform and educate. Some resorts in the US have taken to putting large skull and crossbones signs at entry points to the backcountry, carrying such in-your-face messages as “YOU CAN DIE”. When I first saw these I thought they were way over the top. Now, though, I’m not so sure.

*Scottish Backcountry Festival, www.scottishbackcountry.co.uk/; the Nevis Range’s Back Corries Workshops educate skiers and boarders about backcountry safety, www.nevisrange.co.uk/

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