Steep, Deep and Deadly

  • For skiers, a heavy snowfall is a happy occasion, a piece of good meteorological fortune falling from the sky in soft crystals. Certainly, resort operators across the Alps must have felt lucky when as much as 20 ft. of snow piled up during the past six weeks in winter playgrounds like Chamonix, Klosters and Kitzbuhel. And European travel agents were busily feeding thousands of tourists into the mountains.

    But the mountains have become voracious. Last week avalanches in the Austrian resort towns of Galtur and Valzur killed 38 people. Slides have also struck Chamonix in France and the Valais region in Switzerland. This season more than 70 people have died in Europe, which has seen some of the heaviest snowstorms of the past 40 years. Heavy new snow falling on older snow, strong winds and changing temperatures are conditions favorable to avalanches. In Austria, the snowslides roared through the center of the two towns, crushing houses, cars and people. The avalanches have been so frequent and the weather so horrendous that at various times during the past two weeks, as many as 100,000 vacationers have been stranded in Alpine resorts because roads and railroads became impassable. In Galtur, in the Tyrolean Alps, an international fleet of helicopters, including some U.S. Army Blackhawks, had to airlift thousands of trapped tourists.

    Nowhere was the tragic news from Europe watched with more concern than in the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades of the western U.S. Each year thousands of avalanches occur there without causing any damage. But with the rising popularity of backcountry skiing, more and more people are deliberately putting themselves in the way of the white death.

    Why? For one thing, the fastidiously groomed slopes of ski areas are no longer sufficiently challenging to a growing number of the nation's 13.8 million skiers and snowboarders. They are heading for the unpatrolled peaks of pristine powder to experience the splendor of the outdoors as early explorers and natives saw it. In doing so, they're creating new business for ski areas and for equipment makers, whose products can help them reach the unreachable--and even prevent disaster.

    But not always. This season 32 people have been killed by avalanches in North America, and the season still has two months to go. Recently, at Washington's Mount Baker, a skier (who was outside the area's boundary) and a snowboarder were killed by a thunderous 15-ft. wall of snow moving at 200 m.p.h. In Canada the body of Michel Trudeau, son of the former Canadian Prime Minister, lies at the bottom of a lake in British Columbia, carried there by an early-season slide. "The more I know about avalanches, the more scared I am," says Wendy Fisher, two-time Extreme Skiing champion and a notoriously fearless backcountry skier who has survived several near misses.

    Skiers who crave risks and ignore boundaries have always been trouble for resort operators, but now they're a revenue source as well. People are "living a lot closer to the edge of the envelope than we ever were and are looking for something to test them in a different way," says Ralph Walton Jr., chairman of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which has added a wilderness experience to its mix. Crested Butte has built a new lift to provide access to 550 acres of steep, ungroomed runs called Extreme Limits. It also offers guided snowshoe tours and telemark classes. Says Walton: "We made the decision that this was a niche that we were going to win over as fast as we could."

    Across the country, ski areas are getting wilder. New York's Whiteface Mountain recently opened the Slides, hundreds of feet of treeless, sheer rock face atop the East Coast's highest vertical drop. The Mount Hood Meadows resort in Oregon runs a Sno-Cat tractor so that skiers and boarders can move 1,000 ft. higher to reach an in-bounds canyon that offers 55[degree]-angle chutes (90[degrees] is vertical).

    Many backcountry purists, though, want places more iso- lated than the resorts' wilderness areas, and they'll spend thousands to reach even more remote wilderness zones. Some are traveling to Irwin Lodge, near Crested Butte, which is the largest Sno-Cat resort in the U.S. Co-owner Molly Eldridge says the lodge, which charges $225 a day for skiing, is almost fully booked this year.

    Others, who insist that you must "earn your turns"--that is, ascend mountains on a pair of skis that have synthetic skins attached to the base for traction--find their own backcountry or hire guides. Jean Pavillard, a Swiss-born mountain guide whose Colorado tour service, Adventures to the Edge, leads such folks as trial lawyers and surgeons into avalanche country (up to $2,800 for a five-day group trek), says his clients are "addicted to risk management." He leads them into the back, where they are supposed to apply the three rules they follow in their own work: Recognize the risk, analyze it, then manage it. "A lot of people don't understand the snow," says Pavillard. "It looks beautiful, but it is very insidious, and it never stops changing." Janet Kellam of the Forest Service Sun Valley Avalanche Center teaches classes in which students are given all the information they need to make a sensible decision--the right route, say--in order to avoid catastrophe. "One-half of them will choose to kill themselves," she says.

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