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A Note On How We Address Avalanche Fatalities

In the outdoors, we are always learning and growing, trying to get better at the activities we pursue and be more knowledgeable about the places we recreate. When it comes to backcountry skiing, a willingness to learn and grow is an essential part of the sport. This season, several months of variable weather followed by massive amounts of snow and little time for the snowpack to settle have created unstable and somewhat unpredictable conditions. These conditions have affected much of the western United States. Tahoe saw the beginnings of this pattern with some areas receiving their entire season’s snowpack in a few short days. Washington experienced similar events and ski areas and highways outside Seattle were forced to close. More recently, Utah’s Alta and Snowbird ski resorts went into their longest ever interlodge lockdown due to “extreme” rated avalanche conditions on all slope aspects after massive snowfall. Here in the Tetons, we’ve experienced our deepest February on record. Every week, we claim we’ve skied the deepest days of our lives and then it snows another twenty inches. As a result of our previously somewhat unstable snowpack and mass amounts of new snow, there have been a high number of avalanche related fatalities, specifically in the last week. Following a series of rescues, Teton County Search and Rescue shared the above Instagram post asking people to carefully evaluate the terrain they were skiing. The post was shared by many in the community as they sought to process these losses and spread the message to stay safe.

There have been 32 avalanche fatalities in the United States this season. This number is high enough that those of us in the ski community are hearing about fatalities every couple of weeks and the impact of each one starts to shrink. It’s the same thing as doing 10 pushups every day- each day you feel them less and less. There’s a tendency for those affected to be turned into statistics or examples of what not to do in the mountains. The sheer volume of this kind of news begins to take the humanity out of it when each human involved is reduced to a headline in the news. It’s easy to see these and say “that person was being dumb” without knowing the details of their thought process in that situation, or even who they were as a person.

When we talk about avalanches and avalanche victims, it becomes of the utmost importance for us to remember that we are all only human in our decision making and our abilities. Instead of focusing on whatever call they made that may have not been the right one, we should instead focus on how we can learn. There is no learning to be done from blaming. Someone lost in an avalanche has already experienced the greatest repercussions for their actions, decisions, or simply having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nature is a force and it will take each of us at one time or another whether it be by avalanche or what we simply refer to as “natural causes.” To blame someone who is living their life to the fullest for their own death is unnecessary, and frankly, cruel. Instead, we can evaluate the circumstances and learn from them. We can make conservative choices, and when we are in doubt, do something else. The only person who can punish you for turning around is your own ego.

On February 22, 2021, Matt Brien was killed in an avalanche in Grand Teton National Park. Matt Brien was also a key factor in my rookie year as a river guide and made it an absolute delight. He had this infectious, goofy smile that has not left my head since hearing the news. So, instead of blaming Matt, I ask you to keep his smile in your head and use seasons like this one as a chance to learn and continue to be students of the mountains. We can examine all of the conditions and heuristics that may have led to Matt’s death, but they are not an opportunity to criticize who Matt was. My thoughts go out to Matt’s family and close friends and I hope they know there’s not a day I’ll be out in the mountains without thinking of him. 

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