Put snow safety before fun
Updated: January 15, 2008 3:33 PM
It’s unfortunate but true that avalanche-related deaths and stupidity often go hand in hand: like winter fun and funerals.
That’s evident with Tuesday’s death of a 29-year-old skier who had entered a restricted area of Whistler Mountain, in British Columbia, only to be swept over a 50-metre cliff by a moving wall of snow.
The man died of his injuries. However, a 21-year-old snowboarder — also swept over the cliff by the avalanche — is expected to recover.
The survivor may face criminal charges, police say. His ski pass could even be suspended.
Yikes! Now that hurts!
The two men are both believed to be from Whistler, so they should have been aware of the potential dangers.
Resort officials say the off-limits area had been closed for 20 years and had been the site of fatalities in the past.
It is clearly marked as a restricted area with permanent fenceposts and three levels of wire cable.
Six years ago, two skiers were seriously injured in the restricted area.
What are we to make of such incidents?
Should we lament the unnecessary loss of life? Or, instead, should we simply chalk up such occurrences to foolishness and not lose any sleep over them?
After all, this sort of thing has happened before and will certainly happen again.
Reckless skiers tend to kill themselves from time to time — just as careless or unlucky snowmobilers occasionally succumb to avalanches.
Two snowmobilers lost their lives after being buried by snow near 100 Mile House, B.C., last week.
And just a day ago, two American snowmobilers met a similar fate in an avalanche north of Mount Baker in northwest Washington. A weather and avalanche centre had issued a warning the day before about “considerable avalanche danger” in the area where the two were later killed.
Three people were killed in Utah by an avalanche within eight days recently.
Conditions are ripe for avalanches this week in multiple locations in British Columbia, Colorado and Utah, among other places.
Avalanches happen when new, heavy snow piles on top of older, weaker layers.
According to experts, 93 per cent of avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party.
Admittedly, even the most cautious person can be surprised by a sudden change in weather. However, people killed by avalanches are too often victims of their own carelessness.
In many cases, they go into the mountains without the proper equipment and with relatively little knowledge of potential dangers.
At a minimum, skiers should avoid restricted areas and snowmobilers headed into potential avalanche territory should bring along beacons and probes to locate a victim, as well as shovels to dig him or her out.
Without such equipment it’s difficult to rescue an avalanche victim in time.
Powerful snowmobiles and the four-wheel-drive pickup trucks necessary to haul them deep into the back country are available to anyone who can afford them.
However, there is no requirement for a person to use common sense or even have average intelligence to get into skiing or snowmobiling.
Amazingly, some people are foolhardy enough to put children at risk by taking them snowmobiling or skiing in avalanche territory.
In 2003, seven students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School near Calgary were killed by an avalanche while on a ski trip in Glacier National Park in British Columbia.
At the time, debate raged furiously about whether the school and parents had taken a ridiculous risk by allowing the pupils to go on the adventure.
Back then, British Columbia Solicitor General Rich Coleman said he was considering emergency funding for an avalanche bulletin to be published in the province every day.
That sort of thing might save lives, but — as Coleman noted in 2003 — no matter how much information is available, some people will still live dangerously.
Some of those people have a lot of fun living on the edge. And some of them die.
It’s always been that way and it always will be that way.
Human beings are risk takers, and some human beings are stupid or unlucky.
Once a person is dead, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish the stupid from the unlucky.