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Sierra Daily

12/18/2013

The 4 Most Deadly Backcountry Ski Slopes

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This winter, skiers and snowboarders will populate the alpine wilderness looking to skip the chairlift lines for untouched backcountry slopes.

However, some of the most tasty slices of backcountry carving and shredding in America can also be the most deadly; annual avalanche fatality reports show the sad truth that even the most accomplished skiers and snowboarders can fall prey to the mountain's many hazards. 

Avalanche danger constantly presents itself in the unstable snowpack, and it's paramount to not only know how to avoid avalanche situations, but also be aware of the backcountry regions that have historically posed the worst backcountry avalanche activity. Based on summary reports of previous avalanche activity, forecasts, and data compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, here's a list of backcountry ski spots prone to avalanche activity. 

Glory Bowl, Mt. Glory, WY Glory Bowl: The name alone tantalizes the skier with visions of whizzing through a rocky funnel of Teton snow. However, on a day of unstable snowpack, this bowl can easily turn deadly. One case involved an ill-fated backcountry snowboarder who possibly triggered an avalanche on December 1st, 2000, a day forecasters deemed the avalanche danger "considerable." The slide debris carried the snowboarder 2,000 feet down the slope to his death, and the debris somehow skirted cars driving through the nearby highway; since then, there haven't been incidents of other avalanche fatalities.

Sheep Creek, north of Loveland Pass, CO Five tourers were killed in a tragic hard-slab avalanche in April 20, 2013, the deadliest avalanche in Colorado since 1968. The avalanche was triggered from one in the group of six, sending a shooting crack up the mountain followed by the telltale whumph of a hard slab collapsing upon a weak layer of hoar. In a matter of seconds, the avalanche tumbled at a 41 degree angle, catching the tourers and sweeping them down the gully.

Berthoud Pass, CO Once a bustling ski resort, Berthoud Pass has since stripped the chair lifts and (eventually) the base lodge from the slopes, reverting back to the spotless and seemingly untouched mountain; however, there are no ski patrolers or avalanche control procedures. Though the wealth of single and double black diamond routes attract expert skiers, and Berthoud Pass hasn't seen any recent avalanche deaths, the summit consistently poses avalanche threats: 500 inches of snow a year. That's why Boulder Outdoor Center and collectives like Friends of Berthoud Pass pressure skiers and boarders to take Avalanche Level 1 and 2 Certification classes to ensure safe runs, all the while preparing for the worst.

Tunnel Creek, Stevens Pass, WA  Both the New York Times and Outside Magazine wrote extensive pieces investigating the February 19, 2012, avalanche that caught a group of seven expert skiers, killing three in the group. In the two days leading up to the tragedy, 26 additional inches of snow had accumulated on the summit, compounded by windloading. The seventh, and last, skier in the party triggered the slab avalanche on the third turn, carrying four of them down a rocky gully.   

This article has been corrected. The title has been changed to indicate that there are four items on our list.

Photo credit: iStockPhoto/DarioEgidi

HS_ScottDonahue_BLOGJ. Scott Donahue is an editorial intern at Sierra. He was a freshman in Mr. Hancock's English class when he first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Now, he's currently working on a graduate thesis composed of travel essays. Topics include substitute teaching kindergartners in Nepal, drinking rice beer with a Tibetan porter, and running a marathon from Everest Base Camp.

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