When white snow turns evil

BACKCOUNTRY BASH A group of women heads into avalanche territory in the Southern Alps.
BACKCOUNTRY BASH A group of women heads into avalanche territory in the Southern Alps.

Avalanche – three syllables that can kill and amount to a white elephant in the room for every skier or snowboarder who ventures off-piste.

Skiers and snowboarders, even experienced professionals, die each winter in New Zealand mountains and all over the snowy world after getting caught in avalanches.

Personally, I thought I had more chance of being killed by a flying alien aircraft than being sucked under into a white room with no exit.

That was until I took up skiing and saw firsthand avalanche debris deep enough and big enough to kill an elephant in the backcountry of snow hills around the globe.

The New York Times published the most heart-wrenching and powerful interactive online story titled Snow Fall:

The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek that took the lives of fellow snow media comrades, an international competition judge and a resort marketer, devastating the world’s ski industry community.

The truth is if it can happen to experienced, trained and avalanche-savvy skiers and snowboarders who knew or should have known better, then it could happen to you.

I have had the not-so-pleasurable experience of watching a helicopter hover overhead, lest the fractured snow pack we were guided on to gave way before we made it across to a safer zone in the remote peaks of New Zealand.

The chopper pilot kept a continual line of sight lest we go under.

We didn’t, though we were tempted to send the guide under after we had reached a safe zone.

Don’t think such events just happen out of resort bounds either. Despite extensive work by ski patrollers to keep resorts safe, avalanches can, on rare occasions, strike within a resort too.

Mt Hutt experienced an avalanche that struck several skiers on its black diamond south face in 2010.

Treble Cone also experienced an avalanche – ironically set off by staff working to keep the mountain safe, that buried several skiers up to their waists.

Thankfully, all survived.

Mt Hutt had a similar experience while shut, due to 3-metre snowfalls from the storm of the decade that hit the South Island recently.

While heli-bombing the terrain to make it safe enough to open, an avalanche went awry and hit the skifield’s triple chairlift, which is out of action until further notice.

Heavy snowfalls make skiers and snowboarders itch to get on to the first chair, but it can mean days of hard work by the ski patrols to ensure a resort remains safe.

Those who prefer fresh powder to tracked slopes may think they know better and head to the backcountry, many even hiking up hills to get to steeper slopes.

But if you haven’t done an avalanche course, if you don’t have a qualified mountain guide, if you can’t read avalanche terrain, don’t know how to use a transceiver or you don’t know how to log on to the internet to find out the day’s avalanche warning, then you are asking for trouble.

Combine the immortality of youth, the obsession with extreme skiing and snowboarding movies, the need to boast with GoPro footage shared on social media, fatter skis that make skiing powder a dream and the ease of access to the backcountry from skifield boundaries and you have one of two things – the opportunity for the best day of your life or the last day of your life.

Go prepared, go (or don’t go) informed and go with a sound skill set. Then you’ll reduce your risks and the risks of the people around you.

Sydney Morning Herald