Ski Industry Veterans Are Trying to Keep People Safe In the Back Country

Nov 21, 2012

The holiday season is upon us. And along with that comes ski season. Snow is falling in the Cascades. Wednesday is opening day at Crystal Mountain and Mount Baker. Tuesday Stevens Pass opened.

But giddy enthusiasm from skiers and snowboarders’ throughout the region is overshadowed by an accident at Stevens Pass last February. It was big.

News Report: “We’re gonna begin with those deadly avalanches. A deadly avalanche near Stevens Pass /We are gonna begin with the breaking news: that deadly avalanche in Washington state.”

Three people were killed that day.

Now, as KUOW’s Sara Lerner reports, ski industry veterans are trying to come up with new ways to keep people safe in the back country.

Stevens Pass was the site of a fatal accident earlier last February.
Credit Photo by Derek Ramsey / Wikimedia Commons

About 15 people went together that day to an area near Stevens Pass.

They took the ski lift up and then hiked beyond the boundaries of the ski resort: the back country. The wilderness.Avalanche technicians don’t monitor it nor do ski patrol.

Tim Carlson was part of the group that day. He’s a local, pro snowboarder- someone who gets helicoptered onto mountaintops to ride down. He knows that terrain by Stevens Pass well. Last summer, he went back.

Carlson: "I hiked up from the bottom. It sucked. It definitely brought tears to my eye and you know I – collected Chris’ ski."

His friend Chris Rudolph was one of the three people who died. Rudolph was the marketing director at Stevens Pass. He was 30. Carlson brought his friend’s ski home.

Carlson: "And it sits on my porch now and I just wonder what to do with it. It’s just reminders. It’s just. Yup. It’s there. It always will be there. It’s just your choices. What are your choices?"

Carlson lost another friend that day. After the avalanche came down, he got to the bottom. He was digging in the snow to try and save people who were buried underneath. But Jim Jack didn’t make it.

He helped back country skiing develop as a sport, and judged competitions.

Carlson: "I just spent the week with him down at Crystal. You know camping in his, in the back of his truck. And it was just a shock to see his face. Like OMG."

They’d all been standing together just moments ago.

Earlier – in the middle of a perfect day – with the best snow- Carlson had just bumped into him, and Chris Rudolph, and the rest of the group.

Carlson: “And we just happened to run into that crew, saying hey we’re gonna take a run over here, you should join us.’

One the way up, they hadn’t been scared. They had been excited. After they had hiked beyond the resort, Carlson says they planned their route.

Carlson: "And I know that run so well. And it’s so dangerous. It really is. I assumed that the other group leaders knew it because I talked to them: where are you gonna go?"

He thought they knew where to go. But it all went wrong. After, seeing emergency crews and the shocked faces of the remaining members of the group, Carlson says he didn’t know whether to apologize or cry.

He feels like they did do a lot of things right that day- but not enough.

Joel Hammond was also there. He stood at the top of the ridge and saw the avalanche take his friends. Now he’s thinking back to how they all decided to go off together that day. And since then, some have said they did have reservations.

Hammond: "You know what? There were question marks out there but it was a silent question. "

The silent question: is this a good idea?

Avalanche education courses teach about this very thing: feeling something in your gut but not speaking up.

And here’s what’s new this year: some educators are trying to do more.

They’re turning to the aviation industry to see if they can find new ways to teach these decision-making skills: like, learning how pilots communicate with each other under pressure.

And Stevens Pass employees will see change.

Washington state’s workplace safety agency, Labor and Industries, fined the resort. In its report, it says the marketing director who died, Chris Rudolph, was on duty when he was caught in the avalanche.

That meant Stevens Pass had to create a new policy.

Now, staff need to check in and out with the ski patrol if they want to venture into the nearby back country.

And this year, people who make back country products are trying to find new ways to talk to skiers about safety, because more and more people are going out in to the back country.

Skiers and snowboarders are dabbling in uncontrolled terrain with no avalanche training. Market research shows that’s a huge trend. That means there will be more accidents.

Both Carlson and Hammond have seen it firsthand: gung-ho skiers who don’t realize the danger they’re getting into.

Hammond is a sales rep for a ski company. After the avalanche, he views his job in a new light. His business promotes this adventure sport, with enticing DVDs and cool magazine ads.

Hammond: "We’re one of those companies which is great. I want people to be fired up about skiing. I think there needs to be –there’s a heightened responsibility to get people educated. I’m getting a little preachy in my clinics this year where I’ve never been before. I’m talking to the shop guys and girls about the responsibility of selling this equipment."

Just last week Hammond sold new back country skis to a guy who was planning to head out before the lifts open. He was going to go without any rescue gear or training.

And then Hammond did something he wouldn’t have done last year: he told the guy not to go, not until he has all the tools he needs and knowledge about avalanches.

Hammond says before groups head out in the back country they need to decide what their goals are: where they’ll go and how they’ll make decisions.

And even when the snow is perfect: dry and fluffy, or powder. Even then, he says, there’s one simple rule. If you feel at all hesitant, say something.

Hammond: "When you have the big group or even just 3, 4, 5 people do you want to be that downer on a powder day? And you know what? I say hell yeah you want to be that person."

Back in February, the third skier who died in the accident was Johnny Brenan. He was married with two young daughters.

Tim Carlson is prepping for the peak of his snowboarding career: an international back country competition.

He’s surprised at how much back country snowboarding and skiing has grown, especially at the resorts: people jumping into the roped-off terrain.

Carlson: "It just seems so dumb now to cross those ropes. I’m going out the back country gate, of course it’s safe. Ish. Depending where you go right and where you go left."

Now, if he sees people out in the back country who seem green, he won’t brush it off. He might, nicely, bark orders about where it's safe to go.

He hopes people understand the danger, whether it's next to a resort or 500 miles from home.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio