Big Mountain, Youth and Avalanches

By Anna Keeling

Big mountain skiing or freeriding developed from the sport of extreme skiing in the late eighties and early nineties.  Descending large steep faces at speed, it's about creativity and freedom, using natural features to "air" off.  It's risky - skiers or snowboarders ride ungroomed steeps with potential avalanche danger.  It's popular.  It's media savvy.  

Creative expression can come at a price.  I've worked in the avalanche industry for twenty years and witnessed the exponential growth of freeriding.  Curiosity and concern arose simultaneously after reading about the death of a 13 year old skier at Vail, Colorado several years ago.  Taft Conlin and two friends entered Vail's precipitous Prima Cornice through an open lower gate but side-stepped unknowingly into a closed area behind a higher closed gate.  While looking for an untracked powder stash, all three youths were caught in an avalanche and Taft was killed.  Hearing about this from Utah and knowing that several of my friends were skiing with their teenage freeskiers in Colorado, I was concerned.  I began to think about youth, big mountain riding and avalanches.

A day teaching snow safety to a family of teenage boys provided an opportunity to speak to one parent who is aware of the risks of all-terrain skiing.  I spoke to a mum of three sons who are expert skiers. Competing frequently in freeski events, they are classic young "groms" - seeking the elusive powder stash and looking for the freedom of the big lines.   "The boys are pretty adventurous and we felt that they needed to be armed with the right information to make the right decision.  My perception is that on a commercial field all those “risks” are covered.  However if they wanted to go to more remote areas, it could be easier to take bigger risks!  This course was an inexpensive way of introducing them to the risks and hopefully making them think before they leap.  Most of their skiing at local and smaller ski areas is on steeper terrain, without their parents."

So I asked: Are these kids safer at commercial fields than at club fields?  Craigieburn Valley Snow Safety officer at-the-time Jason Konigsberg told me that while it may take longer to open slopes after a big snowfall (due to a smaller patrol), any doubts about slope stability means that the area stays closed.  However, on any ski area in NZ, this only applies to inbound areas. Craigieburn Valley Manager, Nick Jarman, says that anyone exiting the ski area boundary should read the Backcountry Avalanche Advisory, go with a partner, take safety equipment and know how to use it.  

It seems that it's not a commercial vs. club field snow safety issue, but one of accessible boundaries where the ski area can be exited and re-entered without really having to hike.  If you cross a ski area boundary you should be aware of having crossed it, understand the avalanche hazard on that particular day and carry rescue equipment.  It's also important to recognize that existing tracks do not immediately deem the slope safe.  If you have any doubts at all, stay within the ski area.  

Big Mountain pro-skier (and ex-Freeride World Tour competitor), Canterbury's Charlie Lyons, echoes the Craigieburn Valley professionals.  "let's be honest, very rarely is there ever not a risk. How you manage that risk is what is important. I spent a week in Chamonix skiing patrolled terrain. The snowpack changed quickly over our lunch break. We went back out for more shooting on the same terrain, aspect and elevation that we skied before lunch, yet big slides started releasing....we exited the terrain as safely as possible...  it only takes hitting the wrong spot in a snow pack once, for it to cost you your life. Knowing what to look out for is essential."

The youth I’ve taught value the snow safety course for the rescue training and the opportunity to begin to understand the complex interplay of terrain, snowpack and weather.  They are now keen for more snow, the chance to practice skills learned and want to take further avalanche courses.  For now, they plan to stay inbounds.

www.avalanche.net.nz or chillout.nz