The backcountry mentality
Most backcountry athletes who go into avalanche territory are aware of the dangers.
Dan Burnett of the Summit County Search and Rescue group likened dying in an avalanche to dying in a shark attack.
“You’d have to work to get killed,” he said. One must research where the sharks are, swim there, thrash around and be bleeding in order to be attacked. Just as they are with shark attacks, the odds are stacked against getting killed in an avalanche.
“It’s a hideously violent way to die,” said Burnett, describing the many injuries that can occur when a victim is buried by a wall of snow packing the force of a semi.
“There are different motives for doing things that are really beyond what other people think are reasonable,” said Frisco psychologist James Klein, who offered a cursory guess as to a backcountry adventurer’s motives. “Some of those tend to be attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) people. There’s probably a biochemical component that’s related to that.”
Needless to say, Klein’s guess was controversial.
“I find that as appalling as them labeling every third child as attention deficit just because they have a lot of energy,” said Jim Nicholas, a mechanic at Altitude Motorsports in Breckenridge.
Klein was referring to AD/HD on a larger scale, though. For expert skiers, snowmobilers and snowboarders, the in-bounds territory at resorts can get old, so they search for other challenges. Riders compile a list of locations to ski or snowboard. After checking them off as they go, they move on to bigger and more aggressive slopes.
Klein mentioned several other possible physiological explanations for the arrogant, overconfident behavior exhibited by some backcountry enthusiasts.
“Some people may be compensating for a sense of inadequacy,” he said. “Some people have never had anything go wrong, and they don’t believe that something like that can happen. In terms of appearing overconfident, those would be at least two reasons why people would seem that way.”
Lorann Stallones is an injury epidemiologist at Colorado State University. She studies the factors that lead people to engage in risky behaviors.
“I guess it’s easy to talk about if you think of the people who are going to go backcountry skiing,” Stallones said. “They may not be paying attention to what kind of situations they’re putting themselves in, or maybe the risk is what they’re seeking.”
“We don’t know very much about these things, but there may be people who physiologically need a stronger risk to get a thrill,” Stallones said. “They have to push further the boundary of safety in order to get excited.”
Nicholas, a former backcountry snowmobile guide, is Level II avalanche certified. He knows the warning signs and the factors that lead to slides. Nicholas said he is confident in his abilities as a snowmobiler, and in his decision-making capacity.
“Having looked and made the decision to leap, I’ve taken as many of the variables that I can control into account,” said Nicholas. “I’ve weighed my options out.”
The risk itself also offers a safety measure, Nicholas said.
“When you put yourself in that position, your adrenaline is rushing and you’re ultra-aware,” he said. “At least you should be.”
Unfortunately, not all riders are as careful as Nicholas.
Scott Young is a snowmobile guide and member of the Summit County Rescue Group.
“When you see where some of these people put themselves, it’ll blow your mind,” he said. “How do these guys make it through puberty? A lot of these guys just don’t think about it.”
Having a family doesn’t necessarily lead to responsible riding, but it’s a lot easier to be reckless when you’re without a wife and kids.
Nicholas is married and has two children. He says they enter his mind when he contemplates jumping into a situation on his snowmobile.
“They make me think a lot more when I do it,” he said. “I may still do it, but I do it with a lot more foresight.”
Before he was married, Nicholas said he was more likely to engage in risky, backcountry behavior.
“You can outrun a slide on a sled,” he said. “It’s a rush. I’ve done it before. When you get to the bottom, you thank your personal God – whatever you choose it to be – and you do it again.”
The slide experience
It’s easy to ignore telltale avalanche warning signs when you’re blasting down a hill, but most people who encounter avalanches are experienced, backcountry athletes. They are both well-versed in the proper techniques and who have seen or known an avalanche victim. They know an avalanche is a possibility.
Josh Flenniken has been skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry for eight years. He has the necessary training, knowledge and equipment to be safe in avalanche country.
Flenniken has encountered two avalanches. The first, a slab avalanche, was triggered by his friend, James Orlet, when the two were snowboarding.
“I felt like we were kind of really doing all the right things, not just blindly going into a situation and trusting blind luck,” he said.
Flenniken said he and Orlet had overlooked a significant terrain feature – the presence of rocks jutting out of the snow that ultimately led to an avalanche. Rocks can melt the surrounding snow and affect the snowpack.
“I felt shock and horror and nausea, watching the whole thing go,” he said. “I was just kicking myself that I hadn’t taken a very important feature of the terrain into consideration.”
Flenniken was standing in a “safe” spot when the slide released, but watching his friend be swept with the debris sparked a realization in his mind.
“After that, (I had) kind of the realization that it can in fact happen to anyone, including me.”
The events engendered in Flenniken a greater respect for the raw energy avalanches can unleash.
“The power of an avalanche is really hard to comprehend,” he said. “I had sat through the slide shows in avalanche courses, looked at avalanche debris, and watched documentaries on the Discovery Channel. But until I saw the absolutely unbelievable force, I didn’t understand.”
The experience, and another one that transpired two years later, prompted a change in Flenniken’s attitude toward backcountry sports.
“I became even more conservative,” he said. “Just being extra cautious, erring more on the side of caution.”
That caution can manifest itself as a decision to walk away from a dangerous situation, even after spending several hours blazing a trail to get there.
“It’s hard to walk away (from a situation) even if you think there might be some danger there,” Flenniken said. “I’ve become more willing to say, ‘Yeah, it’s just not safe today,’ and walk away from it.”
The ultimate consequence
Many backcountry athletes who have either been affected by an avalanche or know someone who was, continue to practice their sport.
“It’s somewhat of a Russian Roulette,” Nicholas said. “You can only spin the cylinder so many times before it comes up your number.”
The prospect of dying is omnipresent in backcountry sports. Yet, it does not seem to motivate people to avoid the activities.
“The people who are those high-risk, sensation-seeking individuals may not mind dying in those situations,” Stallones said. “It may not be a perceived tragedy to them. Perhaps you’d just as soon, if you have to die, you’d just as soon die doing something you’re really excited about.”
Indeed, the platitude, “At least he died doing something he loved,” comes up again and again in obituaries of avalanche victims. But Nicholas doesn’t think that phrase is very comforting.
Mike Merik was a good friend of Nicholas’ who lost his life to an avalanche.
“When Mikey (Merik) died, the way that we made ourselves feel better about it is saying, ‘Hey, at least he died doing something he loved,'” said Nicholas. “His death wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t something that by saying, ‘Hey, at least he died doing something that he loved,’ made it all better. It’s hard to glamorize or romanticize an avalanche death, whether he died doing something he loved or not.”
Dan Kelley can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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