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  • Writer's pictureErika Andresen

I Got It! I Got It!...I Don’t Got It!

There are so many lessons to be learned from the fatal avalanche that happened in the Lake Tahoe area in January. This is not going to be a post about avalanche awareness, though. It is even when we are most prepared, we aren’t prepared at all.


All the mitigation measures:

KT-22 is famous for its difficulty and regarded as one of the best routes in the Sierras. The skiers and snowboarders on this expert level slope were…experts. They have all taken avalanche awareness training, avalanche survival training, and backcountry safety classes – kind of rights of passage when adventuring in the outbounds backcountry or very steep inbounds expert runs.


The ski resort opened the lift, for the first time all season, after assessing the avalanche risk – which was “considerable” (in the middle range of risk). The ski patrol looked both for the conditions that day as well as a look back at the accumulation for the season (I can get into the weeds about how the snowpack forms determines the risk from my career as an emergency management professor, but it’s not necessary). The ski patrol is great at managing what is considered avalanche terrain by causing controlled avalanches (similar to wildland firefighters doing controlled burns) by setting off small bombs. They did so two times earlier in the week.


The avalanche risk report was available to the skiers.


The avalanche occurred only 30 minutes after the lift was open.


Excitement might have taken over safety. Being on the first lift of the day is a treasure, but the first lift of the first day of the season…that’s extra special.

 

What wasn’t done:


Treating the mountain like a mountain. Backcountry snow and slopes are no different from the snow and slope in-bounds. Skiers interviewed in the aftermath admitted to NOT assessing the terrain at the resort the way they would a backcountry slope. Red flags were missed because there was a false sense of security. It was a resort. People assumed the danger level would be dramatically lower.


Danger cannot be engineered out of a resort. It is still a mountain.


Another miss brought on by the false sense of security: not wearing the backcountry backpacks! These backpacks commonly contain an airbag, avalanche beacon, probes and a shovel. Some of them sat in the trunks of the cars in the parking lot. Two skiers said they use them for training, but when skiing in-bounds, they are left behind. 


Bombing, grooming, and weather and condition monitoring can certainly help lessen risks, but constantly changing conditions create a dynamic, fluctuating threat level. The mountain has control and ski patrol can only do their best to mitigate the danger.


The veil of protection for those on KT-22 that morning is gone. It has changed the way they treat the mountain, though, and their own safety. I hope it spreads to other skiers.


Danger is danger. Exercises, training, and experience only help if you do not let excitement and a false sense of security get in the way. “I got it”…until you don’t got it after literally leaving (your) life safe-saving tools in the parking lot.



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