I've had very similar questions as a noob backcountry skiier. I see people skiing lines that seem to fall well within the danger zone, even on higher risk days. All these people can't be total daredevils, putting their lives at extreme risk just for some fresh turns. I think the danger is overblown, but I guess that does nothing for you when the slope starts to slide. I feel like, living in CO, I might never get to ski in the backcountry if I wait for "good" avy conditions. Interested to hear other people's takes on this.
Ben- I would be very careful in your line of reasoning stated here. Avalanche danger is not "overblown". The forecasters rating the hazard are obviously seasoned professionals at the tops of their games. For someone at your level of the game, I would subscribe to the daily advisory via email and heed their advice. You will get to ski in the backcountry, you just need to get more education and experience. There are plenty of tours, even in CO, that can keep you out of avalanche terrain and still provide you with fun turns. More importantly, they'll offer a window into what's going on in steeper terrain, gleaned through your observations, snow pit data, and test slope results.
As for the rippers you see crushing your dream lines on days of elevated danger... people can get away with a lot. Like Bruce Tremper says, snow in avalanche terrain is stable 95% of the time. Especially in sidecountry areas, people can get psychologically reinforced by skiing a slope many times without incident, even on days that were supposed to be touchy.
Saddle Peak outside the boundaries of Bridger Bowl near Bozeman offers an excellent case study in reinforcement. The gal that recently survived and epic ride down a nasty path as well as the two other men in her party were all seasoned Bridger skiers who skied the sidecountry on a daily basis. What made them think they were making a good decision by skiing a 1500' avalanche path on the heels of not only a "high" danger rating but an actual avalanche warning for the Bridger Range? I don't know, but I suspect it has to do with being psychologically reinforced through years of skiing Saddle and other similar slopes in similar conditions many times without incident.
In short, you can bet that many of those people you see skiing necky lines aren't fully evaluating the situation.
Sorry for contributing to thread drift! I always see threads like this as an opportunity to plug two classic books, must reads if you're planning on spending a lot of time in avy terrain:
You don't necessarily need to be in extremely technical terrain or have big monster slabs cut loose with huge powder flumes rocketing down a mountain to get hit. Most I've seen look like rather innocuous slopes where people had the education and training to avoid a problem, but still committed to the danger or just didn't want to deal with the instructed safety protocol even though there were ominous signs all over the place.
This year in Colorado has been an amazing example of the dangers of a small slope. When I first started my avalanche education ~8yrs ago I only thought avalanches occurred in large steep bowls.
Here is one of the most insane avalanches that I have seen that is small but truly represents the small scale of what could kill you if you are not ready:
With the advent of so many gopro's and camera phones this year has had more avalanche footage then you could ever imagine. If you are not scared of them after this year you are truly blind to the potential destructive nature that is snow.
for all the emphasis put on avy hazard and avy classes and avy safety and avy equipment, avalanches seem to be extremely rare, avalanches triggered by people even rarer, avalanches that kill people super rare, and climber-triggered avalanches that kill climbers even rarer.
Ben Sachs wrote:
I've had very similar questions as a noob backcountry skiier. I see people skiing lines that seem to fall well within the danger zone, even on higher risk days. All these people can't be total daredevils, putting their lives at extreme risk just for some fresh turns. I think the danger is overblown
Dangerous heuristics, check yourself before you reck yourself.
I think the original post and another one further down are onto the key difference between winter climbing and back country skiing and the difference that you see in avalanche fatalities between the two. The ideal snow conditions for skiing also happen to cause the highest risk of avalanches and the ideal conditions for mountaineering are the lowest risk for avalanches. If it's waist deep pow I know you wouldn't catch me shoveling my way up a slope in boots and crampons.
I agree that the snowpack in the PNW is much more predictable but to say that avalanches rarely occur is wrong and also to say that slabs don't occur here is very wrong. We had a couple of 15 foot deep slabs go here this year, one was natural and the other two went on the same slab on the same layer on different aspects from explosives. Four people in my community of friends died in one day, I watched two other friends pop big storm slab slides, and I've been caught in 3 slides this year. Luckily someone unknown to me shot pictures of the last one and put it up on Vimeo:
I'm not downplaying the dangers of the snowpack in Colorado or Utah, that's why I choose to play in the PNW, but don't underestimate what we're working with in the Cascades.
From a climber's perspective, many ice climbs can be very dangerous. Many if not most ice climbs form in gully systems below massive snow bowls. So you have two dangers right there - a huge amount of snow above you on a slope, and you in a guaranteed avalanche path/gully/terrain trap. Add to that the fact that snow does not bond well to ice, and you have a few red flags right there.
By OldManRiver From Cottonwood Heights, UT Nov 27, 2012
A friend and I were goatin around Brighton's sidecountry roughly 10 years ago and stumbled on a group hysterically searching for two buried friends. A group of 6 or 7 was headed to a steep north aspect when two in the party triggered a deep slab above a cliff band below a cornice, got swept over and grated through trees.
My friend and I probed and hung around trying to locate the buried until the dogs arrived and found their bodies. 1 wrapped around a tree with two broken femurs, the other mangled and several feet down.
Take that shit seriously, even in the NW. Last season should be a good lesson. If you read the avy center material and study avalanches you are a beginner. If you can avoid the heuristic traps that accompany good avy knowledge, then you're in good shape. But even then you have to keep your head sharp and never let your guard down.
I heard so many whumphs last year I stopped counting. I honestly think it only takes hearing that sound once or twice to really put the fear of an avalanche in your heart. I play in the back country frequently in the winter, mostly skiing but some hiking and ice climbing too. I think the best thing you can do is pay attention. I pay attention to the weather, avalanche forecast, snow conditions, and my gut. I spend pretty much all my time out there solo so the only way I can make it home is to not get caught in a slide, if I get buried, nobody's going to be coming to dig me out.
Avalanches do happen, I've kicked off little slides here and there and come across slides from the smallest little point releases to huge tree breaking slab slides, but if you pay attention to what's going on around you, you can usually keep yourself out of danger.