My Turn: Bad decision leads out-of-bounds
January 30, 2007
We all make mistakes and I made a pretty big one in Tahoe during this past holiday season. I was back for Christmas visiting my family and we got a pretty good-size storm. I was skiing at Alpine Meadows having a great time when I came across an out-of-bounds sign. The snow looked a lot better on the other side. I was well aware of what it stated, “STOP, do not pass this sign or traverse pass this point.” I thought about it, but what I really saw was the untouched-powder goodness on the other side.
In my mind, I knew it was wrong but sometimes you just throw all logical thinking out the window for a few of the steep and deep turns we all dream about. We are skiers after all, and that is really what we live for. So I looked left, and right, then started out of bounds and down the mountain. I had a grin on my face about a mile wide when I heard the dreaded “Hey you, get over here,” from the man in his red jacket with the big cross on the back.
Instantly my knees started to shake and my heart started to pound because I knew I was in trouble. What I didn’t realize was that if the ski area wanted to really punish me they could have charged me with a misdemeanor, which has a potential jail time of six months or fines that can reach $1,000. Thankfully, they did not choose to do that, but it really opened my eyes to a lot of things.
I was born and raised in Tahoe City, and have been a skier since I was 3 years old and have never really been backcountry skiing. My avalanche awareness pretty much consists of knowing that it is dangerous and I don’t ever want to get caught in an avalanche. I have been lucky enough to ski at resorts that take their avalanche safety very seriously, so I have never thought twice about its dangers.
That day, ski patrol had closed that particular slope because there had been some unusual avalanche activity. There were slides due to bombing, and there had also been some slides where avalanches normally do not occur; so they had closed this area for everyone’s safety.
I knew when I came to that sign I was not thinking about all of the unusual avalanche danger awaiting me on the other side. I was thinking of the amazing turns of untouched powder just calling my name. I was really lucky not to get caught in a deadly slide that day, and I hope to pass on some information that might make you think twice if you ever decide to do it.
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If you get caught and buried in an avalanche you have a 93 percent chance of survival in the first 15 minutes and then your chances decrease dramatically after that. Only around 20 to 30 percent of avalanche victims are found alive after 45 minutes and after 2 hours almost no one is ever found alive.
Almost all avalanche accidents occur by outdoor enthusiasts who are very skilled in the sport they are doing, but have little or no avalanche expertise.
Wind is the most common cause of avalanches. It can deposit snow in areas 10 times faster than the snow falling out of the sky, so this makes really windy storms more deadly than usual.
People think they get “caught” in an avalanche, but the reality is that in 90 percent of slides, they were caused by the weight of the person caught or someone in the same party.
It is extremely hard to outrun an avalanche because they travel at speeds between 60 and 80 mph and reach those speeds within about five seconds after they are triggered.
This is a pretty scary fact: 75 percent of all victims die from asphyxiation (breathing their own carbon dioxide), a little less than 25 percent die from the trees or rocks they hit on the way down. And of those lucky 2 percent who make it past all that, most live long enough to die of hypothermia.
The good thing about avalanches is that they are almost always avoidable. As scary as they are, there are obvious signs of snow instability and danger; you just have to know what to look for. I would suggest going to an avalanche safety course, but a great Web site (where I gathered a lot of my information) is avalanche.org.
So the next time you are in the midst of an amazing powder day and the snow beyond the boundary signs looks too good to be true, it probably is. There are way too many people in this small community that have been killed by avalanches and I don’t want you to be one of them. So just remember that the ski patrol has those areas roped off for very important reasons (even if we don’t really like them), and they are just looking out for our own good. Respect them and have a safe, fun, and powder filled (in bounds) season.
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