As climbing, backcountry skiing and whitewater boating become more popular, I’ve noticed they’ve also become more and more mainstream in the media, and with that attention I think there’s a growing information gap about just how dangerous these activities are.
Following that deadly stretch in early February, when 16 people died in avalanches over a span of just 10 days, I received a flurry of emails and messages from friends and family back East, imploring me to be safe and questioning the idea that people seemed willing to die for powder or for whatever extreme sport made the news for killing someone that week. The idea that comes through the media is that we — backcountry skiers, climbers, boaters, etc. — take extraordinary risks to pursue our passion.
I do not mean to downplay the tragedy of the deaths that occurred this winter. All of them are heartbreaking. All of them represent someone’s partner, son, daughter, father, mother, friend. All of them left their houses the morning of their death looking for that incredible high you get riding in untracked powder. All of them had their day transformed from one about the joy of skiing, boarding or snowmobiling, the joy of being out with friends and the joy of being surrounded by nature into a tragedy. The numbers represent real people. The numbers represent real broken hearts and grief.
And yet, I don’t think outdoor recreationists are by nature huge risk takers, as you might think if you were reading a newspaper in New York City. In fact, I think that perception is based more on sensational headlines, dramatic online videos, misunderstanding and a few notable exceptions than on the inherent danger of our pursuits.
The fact is, humans are bad at statistics and probability, so it’s hard for us to understand just how dangerous certain activities really are. If we were really thinking about odds, we might not get into a car, since on average 32,000 Americans die in car accidents every year. Of course, you can argue, there are millions and millions of us driving, and the fact is that most of the time nothing happens. That’s the same, on a smaller scale, with outdoor recreation. Most of the time nothing happens.
Back in 2009, Bruce Jamieson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Calgary in Alberta who focuses on avalanches, presented a paper for the International Snow Science Workshop that compared data from North America with similar estimates from Switzerland to come up with a risk comparison chart for a variety of activities. The data was expressed in millimorts (one death per million). That number was chosen, according to a Utah Avalanche Center blog post about the study, because one millimort is the chance an average 20-year-old has of dying from any cause on any given day.
The findings are illuminating. Himalayan climbing on 8,000-meter peaks comes in as the most deadly activity on the chart, with 12,000 millimorts, which translates to a 1-in-40 risk of dying. The numbers drop drastically from that peak. Riding a motorcycle eight hours a day earns 605 millimorts, while BASE jumping is 300. Driving a car eight hours is 16, backcountry skiing in Canada using normal risk reduction practices is four, and getting out of bed at age 20 is one.
Of course, not all skiing is that benign. Jamieson’s data shows that center-punching a known avalanche path 10 times during high avalanche danger with no risk measures in place is the equivalent of 500 millimorts, so a little less than riding a motorcycle for eight hours and a little more than BASE jumping. But the fact is, I don’t know anyone who would do this. Even the most bold backcountry skiers and riders take some precautions. Plus, who does 10 runs in the backcountry without a helicopter?
So, the statistics indicate that the vast majority of us aren’t flirting with death when we head out for a ski, and yet, some of us still die. These deaths can be hard to rationalize because whoever died made a choice to put themselves in that particular situation, and, therefore, you could argue they took an unnecessary, even selfish risk for their powder high.
We all know that life is fleeting and that death can come suddenly and in all sorts of ways. People even talk about a “good” or “bad” death. Most of us envision a good death as peaceful and painless, hopefully at the end of a long, happy life. A bad death is one that is traumatic, tragic, painful, scary or involves a loss of dignity or independence. A bad death is one that comes before its time, whatever that means. Yet while we acknowledge these distinctions and have decided what we think is the best way to die, most of us can’t really imagine ourselves dying, especially dying in an avalanche when we are looking at a blank slope of glittering powder that is calling our name.
But despite this lack of imagination, I think many people entertain the idea that they would prefer to die “doing what they love” rather than, say, in a car crash or from some horrible disease. If we accept that preference, are we more willing to expose ourselves to the chance of dying and thereby crushing the loved ones we leave behind? Do we really mean it? Would we really be OK dying in an avalanche because it happened while we were skiing powder, which we adore? I don’t think so, to be honest, because frankly I think most of us aren’t really ready to die. Or we don’t believe that what we love can kill us.
I talked to Don Sharaf, one of the owners of the American Avalanche Institute, about this topic recently. He said he thinks most backcountry riders are convinced they have the tools, knowledge and experience to manage themselves in avalanche terrain safely. And to a certain degree he’s right. Per capita, avalanche fatalities have decreased or leveled out in recent years. Avalanche educators think that is due in part to avalanche education. But there are two sides to the education equation. One: We know more so we may be able to avoid dangerous terrain. Two: We know more and so we may believe that we can outthink the snowpack.
Don said, “Few, if any, would say they would give up their life for a great powder run, but many would say that if they can minimize the risk of avalanches, they would ski that run. That works almost all the time. The problem is that deep slab avalanches are unforgiving, and all it takes is one to end your skiing days.”
As Jamieson’s data illustrates, reckless skiing (the center-punch data) is much riskier than backcountry touring following basic safety precautions (500 versus four millimorts.) So, this evidence indicates we can reduce our exposure. Still, the fact is life is dangerous. We have to accept a certain level of risk to live, and I think we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones not to be thoughtless and rash about that risk, or as a saying I remember hearing once goes, “Wimp out today so you can wimp out again tomorrow.”