The southern hemisphere has not had the best season for ski safety in 2014, with a number of publicised avalanche incidents in Australia and South America. What are the factors influencing these events?

2014 saw a successful retrieval from an in bounds avalanche burial in Thredbo, where the survivor was dug out by patrol after 40 minutes. On Mt. Bogong near Falls Creek, 2 died in a slide whilst camping and skiing out in the back country, and in the last week the tragic loss of international skiing talent’s JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson and snowboarder Liz Daley in two separate avalanches in Chile.

There is no doubt these three professionals at the top of their game had done the research, and had teams behind them with great resources, but it still went tragically wrong.  The problem is the age of media, one that loves this sensationalist content that is at odds with the ski resort industry. Ski resorts need a positive image around safety for it to grow and attract more non-skiers in. It is a business that relies on life long returning customers.

We all have a sense of adventure though, and it needs to be scratched, but what makes some people, despite the warnings, disregard or down play the danger?

Safety and Touring Gear

Technology advances have made easy to use equipment more accessible and cheaper so playing a part with those thinking that purchase is enough without practice. As Karl Klassen, the public warning service manager for Avalanche Canada notes, some don’t even have the right equipment: “Ninety-eight per cent [of people] go to the back country with a transceiver, only 14 per cent go with all three – a transceiver, a probe and a shovel.” This change has ruled out a process of natural selection based on price or availability of equipment.

Availability and Assessment of Information

Perhaps the information that is available empowers people to make a decision when they may need more local input, or knowledge with which to determine the results. Using this increase in numbers, Avalanche Canada are reaching out to those in the field to help with the data. The recent update to their mobile app allows a user to become part of the observer network This will increase the data points available to make predictions through crowd sourcing the information rather than relying on a few forecasters and resorts to provide information. The net result should be more robust information in a greater area of coverage.

There is huge amounts of work and research going in to avalanche science through organisations such as the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) that met last week in Banff. Participants in this week long conference come from the world over, from specialist centres like Avalanche Canada, Banff Avalanche Centre, the US Forest Service and many more. This focus is on the snow, mountain, and conditions that lead to a release, not so much on the human factors at play.

Social Factors

The consumption of big mountain ski movies and extreme ski events would no doubt be pushing and driving people to do more, go harder and higher, steeper, faster. This becomes coupled with social media, within which a competitive environment is created where those participants need to out-do each other. Prof. Pascal Haegeli of Avalanche Canada has a personal goal to investigate that human factor because it hasn’t been studied to nearly the same degree. Even Andreas Fransson noted in an article on Adventure Journal that “the ethics of skiing need to catch up with those of climbing” after he was told he gave up too easily on the slopes of Artesonraju.

Risk Perception

Is skiing a run of untouched power in the back country the same risk taken in many other accessible sports?

How about by world surfing star’s like Kelly Slater competing in the Eddie Aikau at the massive Pipeline in Hawaii?

Is it the same as Danny Macaskill  mountain bike riding off a remote mountain in the Isle of Skye?

Perhaps a BASE jump from a tower (legal in many countries) in the middle of a city.

If we watch these athletes at the peak of their game we can see the danger they are putting themselves in, we can see what could happen if they slip or fall. The danger is obvious. We also know and appreciate they have done lots of training and preparation for it. In surfing you see the safety crews all around, they come in and out of shot all the time. You can see that rescue is close by.

On a big mountain shoot the participants and crews have done hours of methodical research, watching snow pack, checking lines, understanding weather, sometimes staying off the mountain for weeks until the weather is right. But you just don’t see this work or have any idea how much there is. We get to see a few spills where they get it wrong, but very little about the preparation, safety measures and man power that goes into making up these shots.

“My personal goal as a researcher is trying to understand how people assess the risks,” said Prof. Haegeli to the Globe and Mail at ISSW in Banff. “The challenge of avalanches is the hazard is not quite as obvious as in BASE jumping. You look at the beauty of the white landscape and it looks benign. People can come to the conclusion, ‘It won’t happen here.’ But you can have an avalanche if the right conditions come together.”

Untouched, pristine powder in bounds or out of bounds has a draw to it that is so powerful, your motivation to ride it may be larger than your gut feeling of self preservation or logical knowledge laid out in front of you. It is a passion that drives many skiers and riders to get out there.

Overall we have an education problem. I for one would find it fascinating to see what goes in to making a big mountain ski movie, getting that one shot. Ski resorts get people started in this sport, and now have a role to play in the education of it’s graduates, even though they may disagree.

Who would you rather ride with, the 14%?