Ski Resorts Work To Cut Avalanche Risk

Jan 28, 2009

Avalanches at western ski resorts are happening at an unprecedented rate this ski season. That's because a unique recipe of storms, wind, sun and cold weather have combined to create an instable snow pack in the Rocky Mountains. Ski resorts are preparing the slopes to try to keep skiers safe.

Mitzi Rapkin reports for Aspen Public Radio.

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Transcript

ALEX COHEN, host:

Here in the U.S., atypical weather is making mountain conditions across the west particularly unstable this season. More than 30 people have died in avalanche accidents so far, and it's only January. The danger even exists within the usually safe confines of ski resorts. From Aspen Public Radio, Mitzi Rapkin reports.

MITZI RAPKIN: Sunlight Mountain Resorts sits just outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Today, ski patrollers responsible for the area's snow safety are setting off explosives.

Unidentified Man: Clear the area! Blasting! Clear the area!

RAPKIN: The idea is to bomb steep terrain and trigger an avalanche. This is typically step one in establishing whether a slope is safe for skiers. Step two is to ski it.

Mr. JACK CODY (Ski Patroller): What we normally do is we just zigzag.

RAPKIN: Jack Cody is a ski patroller. He's responsible for making the terrain ready for the public. He skis to the top of a double black diamond run, called Heathen. It's a nearly vertical drop.

Ms. CODY: At any point in time, depending on wind and weather and how it's been blowing, we can see or expect the slides at pretty much any point from here, here down.

RAPKIN: As Cody skis the run, he makes sharp cuts that look like switchbacks. His goal is to try to set off an avalanche beneath him. The hope is the pent-up energy in the snow will be released, so when the public skis it, avalanche danger is reduced.

Mr. BRIAN LAZAR (Executive Director, Avalanche Research and Education): The risk of avalanches inbounds has been reduced to almost zero, but you'll never get to zero risk.

RAPKIN: That's Brian Lazar. He's the executive director of Avalanche Research and Education.

Mr. LAZAR: There is always a risk - if you're an avalanche trainer and you have snow - there's some small risk of avalanches. And it has just fallen out of a lot of inbound skiers' consciousness because the snow safety programs have done such a good job for so long that these incidents are quite rare.

RAPKIN: But not so rare this year. Three skiers at western resorts died just last month from inbound avalanches.

Mr. JERRY BLANN (President, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming): It's an outdoor sport, and you know, there are inherent risks, and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. And this is a terrible way to have to do it.

RAPKIN: That's Jerry Blann. He's president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming. Two avalanches happened there over Christmas break. One person died. Earlier in the month, skiers died at Snowbird in Utah and Squaw Valley in California. It's unheard of to have three people die in resort avalanches in one month. Blann says the accidents emphasize snow science is not a perfect discipline.

Mr. BLANN: There are no absolutes in this business when it comes to avalanche reduction, that they're not to be controlled. They're to be managed as best as you can.

RAPKIN: Conditions are unusual this year across the west. Avalanche forecasters say late fall snow followed by warm temperatures created a layer akin to ball bearings in the snow. Then, in December, snowstorms pummeled the mountain west. In most cases, the new snow was too heavy. The weak ball-bearing layer couldn't hold it, so it slid even in managed areas.

On a blue-sky day, reggae music is blasting from the exhibition lift area at Aspen Highlands. Skiers are lined up to ski the steep and famous Highland Bowl. Melissa Nelson(ph) from Denver is one of them. She says she is very aware of this year's inbound avalanches.

Ms. MELISSA NELSON: I think that I will be more conscious skiing the Back Bowls. And I think it's probably a good thing that's, you know, created more awareness throughout. But no, I do you think it will change my behavior. I can't guarantee you that I'll ski with a beacon every time I'm, you know, inbounds, but I think it brings a lot more conscious thought in practice.

RAPKIN: The beacon she is talking about is a device that signals your location, a good thing if you're buried in an avalanche. Usually, beacons are worn just in the back country, but sales are up significantly this season. And some skiers are choosing to use them at ski resorts too. As of now, the snow pack across the west is consolidating, but avalanches continue to be a very real risk. For NPR News, I'm Mitzi Rapkin in Aspen, Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.