The lure of skiing deep powder in the backcountry is overwhelming. The vast open snow fields, the speed and weightlessness of a powder descent, the sun and snow blowing magically overhead – there is not much like it.
Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake City, provides access to some of the most exhilarating powder skiing in the world. A typical winter brings over 500 inches of snow from October to April. The terrain is majestic, with alps-like mountain faces, steep chutes and heavenly powder fields extending down thousands of feet. It is also one of the most avalanche prone areas in the U.S.
The risks are enormous. While the snowpack is controlled in and near the ski resorts, it is generally left untouched across most of the backcountry. Newly fallen snow often does not bond well with the older layers, leading to slide risk. When there is a weak layer, it will often release. When the snowpack fractures, a field of snow can accelerate down the slope at a horrifying rate.
The spellbinding solitude of the backcountry masks the complexity of the situation. The total quiet can be broken by the disconcerting “whomph” the snowpack makes when it settles. This is often a signal of extreme instability. Thousands of tons of snow, perched. Throughout the day, the radiant heat and wind can critically change the risk parameters, often quickly.
Decision making in the backcountry is complex, and fraught with consequence. As you skin across a snow field, even having some sense of the construction of the snow pack and the relative avalanche risk, you can easily become paralyzed with fear. The quiet whir coming from the skins amplifies the incessant fear that at any moment the snow beneath your skis may suddenly break free.
Even with advanced equipment such as the Avalung and the Airbag backpacks, the chances of survival are not good. A large percentage of skiers are killed from trauma, irrespective of whether they happen to become buried in the debris.
Without a perfect prop, the critical factor is to follow a process and strictly abide by rules based decision making. There is simply no room for impulse or whim. A bad decision, and in an instant you are in a whirl of irreversible forces. Success is returning home safely, with more experience and wisdom in hand, to better manage the nebulous risks the next time.