Dear Readers

Let's Be Careful Out There

How do we make sense of backcountry ski deaths?

By Cindy Hirschfeld February 22, 2019 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2019 issue of Aspen Sojourner

Editor in Chief Cindy Hirschfeld

Image: Luke Gottlieb

Remember the show Hill Street Blues, the mid-’80s cop drama known for its groundbreaking realism? Early in every episode, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus would run down the day’s crime beat for officers and end with his signature admonition: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

It’s a long way from gritty Hill Street to the Elk Mountains, but those cautionary words apply just as much to the winter backcountry. We all know the siren call of untracked powder, just as surely as we know that snow can be fickle. But for any number of reasons—the exhilaration of getting first tracks, peer pressure, lack of experience, high risk tolerance, and others—we frequently ignore or underestimate the signs of avalanche danger. 

Aspen Sojourner contributing writer Catherine Lutz and I were discussing this by email last spring, after a slide just outside the boundaries of Aspen Highlands claimed the life of a local skier. He was also a longtime member of Mountain Rescue. (We were communicating online because Catherine was on her yearly family sabbatical in Chamonix, which you can read about in this issue’s Talking Points column.) We’re all aware of people who get in over their heads while skiing and then need help getting out. But what does it mean when it’s the rescuer who dies while recreating? If even skiers at the very top level of experience are succumbing to avalanches, does that mean the rest of us don’t stand a chance?

Meanwhile, avalanche education has evolved as the popularity of backcountry skiing and riding has soared. More recently, the focus has shifted from the science of snow crystals and stability tests in the field—though those elements are still important—to a bigger-picture process that includes decision-making and group dynamics. I proposed to Catherine a piece that wouldn’t cast aspersion or lay blame but would take a look at how and why we’re all susceptible to making debatable decisions in the backcountry, and how current education is addressing it. 

“I am totally fascinated by this question. Sign me up for the story,” she responded. Read the results of Catherine’s reporting. 

Are we suggesting that you never go outside in winter? Hardly. (Though some days, sitting by the fireplace with a good book sounds just right.) In fact, go out there and kick your skiing or riding up a notch or three. This issue’s feature on next-level mountain adventures suggests 20 ways to push your boundaries, no matter what your skill or comfort level: it might be as straightforward as Nordic skiing at night or as involved as exploring the Aspen Highlands backcountry with a guide. Whatever you choose, I urge you to … well, you already know the advice.

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