DENVER — Business is lagging this year at the Boulder Outdoor Center, where adventurers come to book and buy equipment for ski trips into the backcountry.
Except, that is, in one area. The outfitter's avalanche training courses keep selling out.
An influx of new daredevils combined with an historically dangerous season in the high country have played into this strange mix at the Colorado shop and around the West, where 17 people have been killed by avalanches so far this season.
"Basically, my answer is, it's multiple levels of gray," said the Outdoor Center's Eric Bader, when asked to explain this year's troubling numbers. "Yes, there are more people going out to the backcountry who don't have a clue. On the other end of the extreme, nobody's perfect. Anyone who goes out in the backcountry takes some level of risk. Sometimes, they don't do enough to minimize that risk, to be as smart as they can when the risk gets high."
In Colorado this year, the risk is high.
Early-season snow followed by several weeks of dry weather in the mountains created a grainy, unstable base of snow. Heavy snowfall later in the winter, accompanied by strong winds that piled the snow onto downwind-facing slopes, has created the ultimate recipe for avalanche conditions. So far this season, six people have died in Colorado. Last week, four people died in Washington, where expert backcountry skiers and snowboarders met up with tragedy despite taking precautions.
"It's unpredictable," said Joel Hammond, one of the survivors, in an interview with KING-TV in Seattle. "But we choose that part of the game, to go out and be in places where it isn't necessarily controlled by the ski patrol. That's the risk we take. That's part of the sport. But it's also what we live for."
Spread liberally across the YouTube and the rest of the Internet are hundreds of videos of avalanches triggered by backcountry skiers, boarders and snowmobilers who escape tragedy by the barest of minimums.
It's this kind of thrill-seeking, along with an increase in the acreage of "out of bounds" areas that have been opened to adventurers over the last five to 10 years, that has made it more possible for avalanches to kill.
But it's not just newcomers who are vulnerable to conditions during an unpredictable winter that's on pace to finish well above the national yearly average of 29 avalanche deaths. In November, professional skier Jamie Pierre, who once famously jumped off a 255-foot cliff, died in the Utah mountains while at a resort that wasn't yet open and had not begun avalanche control.
"It's a broader intersection of where people like to ski and where avalanches happen," said Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "Then, you amp up what the risk-taker group likes to do. They want to ski aesthetic lines, the steepest mountain runs, jumping off cliffs. I don't think they're doing it because they want to trigger an avalanche. It's not because they want to die. They do it because that's what's fun about it."
Because the whole notion of "out-of-bounds" skiing goes against following widely posted rules and warnings, it's no surprise that advisories, watches and warnings often are ignored or taken with a grain of salt. For instance, a wide swath of Colorado was under a high-risk avalanche warning earlier this week. That was downgraded to "considerable" risk for the weekend, yet risk-takers still will be out there.
"All you can tell them is to compare it to crossing a really busy, four-lane highway," Greene said. "You generally tell people that's not a good idea. But if you're going to do it, tell them to stand to the side of the road, watch traffic and recognize a spot where they can get across safely."
In addition to the six deaths in Colorado and the four in Washington, three people have died in avalanches in Utah, three in Montana and one in Wyoming.
Although Greene emphasizes that this has been a particularly bad year from a snowpack perspective, Bader says there's a human-nature element that plays into the spike in backcountry skiing, which puts more people at risk.
"As a human race, everything seems to be ramping up and getting more extreme," Bader said. "Scary movies aren't the same as they were 20, 30 years ago. There's more violence on TV. Everything keeps ramping up. We're doing the same thing with sports, always trying to do better than the previous person — ski steeper, go faster. That's basically leading to more accidents."
Greene said there are three obvious signs that you're in an avalanche zone:
—If you see a fresh avalanche near where you're skiing, it's a good bet that there will be other slides on similar slopes that face the same way, with the same pitch and same elevation.
—If you're snowshoeing and you see cracks shooting through the snow in front of you.
—If you hear a low, rumbling, "whoompfing'" sound.
"Those are all signs that the snowpack where you're at is prime for an avalanche," he said.
At the Boulder Outdoor Center, they teach all those things, along with the importance of carrying avalanche gear — beacons, shovels, balloon packs — and knowing how to use it.
"When they let you go into the backcountry, they're saying, 'Here, we're letting you go outside of the boundaries,'" Bader said. "It's user beware. We're not responsible for that. But in many cases, I think the knowledge that people need to have to go outside those gates has not kept up with the increased accessibility. There are so many new people getting out there."
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