Backcountry adventurers know they’re taking chances

By Molly Absolon

Six people have died in avalanches in the United States since the snow started to fly this fall. Every year, an average of 27 people —skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, snowshoers — die this way.

For people who don’t venture into the backcountry in winter, the thought of potentially dying in an avalanche seems crazy. Why put your life on the line for a few minutes of fun? But most of us who ride fresh powder don’t look at it that way: We don’t consider backcountry skiing a death-defying activity.

A couple of years ago, my friend Jenna Malone, who is an avalanche educator and physician assistant in Salt Lake City, told me, “I don’t know anyone who’s stood on the top of a slope and thought, ‘Well, this is going to kill me, but it’s going to be epic powder skiing.’

“We believe that with training, planning, good decision-making, and a solid ski partner who calls us on our blind spots, we can make it safer,” she added.

In 2009, Bruce Jamieson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Calgary in Albert, Canada, took accident data collected in North America and Switzerland to come up with a risk-comparison chart. The data was presented in “millimorts,” or one death per million. One millimort is the chance an average 20-year-old male has of dying from any cause on any day.

Himalayan climbing turned out to be the riskiest activity Jamieson considered, with a one in 40 chance of dying on an 8,000-meter peak, or 12,000 millimorts. Riding a motorcycle eight hours a day earned 605 millimorts, while backcountry skiing in Canada, using usual risk-reduction practices, came in at four.

Of course, not all skiers try to minimize risk. Recently, I saw a group of five riders swooping down a steep gully, hooting and hollering as they flew by. The avalanche hazard that day was moderate. Still, five people skiing a  slope like that at one time is outside normal risk-reduction practices and could have easily ended in tragedy.

Jamieson’s data is now more than a decade old, but the likelihood of being killed in an avalanche probably hasn’t changed much. It may have even lessened, considering the growing number of backcountry users in avalanche terrain that are sharing the risk.

When I started skiing in the backcountry decades ago, we would see only a handful of other people. Today, SnowSports Industries America estimates that there are more than six million backcountry riders in the United States, which puts the American avalanche death rate at less than 0.5 per 100,000. Your risk of dying in an automobile accident is one in 107.

These statistics may be why we don’t feel like we are gambling with our lives every time we head out to ski. And in general, backcountry users consider themselves responsible risk takers.

We take avalanche courses to learn how to identify dangerous snow conditions. Most of us carry safety equipment: avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes, and in some cases airbags to help improve our odds of survival in a slide. We consult the daily avalanche forecast for our area. We choose our partners carefully.

Still, people die. You can argue that statistically the odds are in our favor, but that doesn’t lessen the tragedy that occurs when a glorious day of powder skiing turns into a nightmare.

Two of this year’s fatalities involved fathers triggering slides that buried and killed their sons. It’s hard to imagine anything more painful for a family.

Avalanches have been called “wicked-learning environments,” a label popularized by psychologist Robin Hogarth in 2015. A wicked-learning environment is one where the rules are unclear and feedback is often inaccurate or nonexistent. That means you can’t learn, or may learn the wrong thing from your experiences. Mistakes in a wicked-learning environment can be fatal.

Venturing into winter backcountry is a classic wicked-learning environment. You can arm yourself with all the appropriate safety gear, do lots of prep work on snow conditions and terrain, and keep your eyes open for clues. Ultimately, though, most of the information about snow stability is hidden.

Every time you ski a slope without it avalanching, you are likely to believe you made a smart decision, when in reality you may have just been lucky. Most of us have been lucky.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes in Idaho.

Five backcountry skiers cross a avalanche path while hiking outside of Jackson Hole Resort, Wyoming.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

02/13/2023 Adventure Journal CA
02/13/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
02/13/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
02/13/2023 Park Record Park City UT
02/14/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
02/14/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
02/15/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
02/15/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
02/15/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
02/16/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
02/16/2023 Teton Valley News Driggs ID
02/16/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
02/16/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
02/16/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
02/16/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
02/14/2023 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
02/16/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
02/15/2023 Taos News Taos NM
02/17/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
02/17/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
02/17/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
02/15/2023 Limon Leader Limon CO
02/15/2023 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
02/16/2023 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
02/17/2023 Wyofile WY
02/15/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
02/17/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
02/15/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
02/18/2023 Pueblo Chieftain Pueblo CO
02/19/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
02/19/2023 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
02/19/2023 Sierra Sun North Lake Tahoe CA
02/20/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
02/20/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
02/20/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
02/21/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
02/21/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
02/19/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
02/23/2023 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
02/22/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
02/23/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
03/02/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
02/23/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
02/22/2023 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
03/01/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
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fritz dietrich
1 year ago

I believe your use of statistics is misleading. You need to compare the mortality rate of those directly involved in avalanches with that of those involved in car accidents. If I don’t drive a car or ski in the back-country, my risk of death in either scenario is virtually zero. Am having a hard time believing that only one-half per 100,000 involved in avalanches are fatalities. One per 107 involved in car accidents sounds about right.

1 year ago

We can learn in so-called wicked environments, the trick is to learn differently. In avalanche terrain you are right that we don’t always know the “facts of the snowpack” but we can learn to negotiate terrain differently and safely in spite of those facts. Those who have a long and productive ski career are not lucky. Rather, they have adapted to the reality of snow. Oh, and they have set aside their ego as a decision making device. Egos don’t normally make good decisions.

Writers on the Range: Backcountry adventurers know they’re taking chances |
1 year ago

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