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Death in the backcountry
December 7, 2012 9:10 AM   Subscribe

What started as a glorious powder day ended in a desperate fight for survival after three skiers were buried by a killer avalanche in the backcountry of Stevens Pass, in Washington's Cascades. Megan Michelson lived to tell about it, but she can't shake off a haunting question: How did a group of expert skiers make such a deadly mistake?
posted by Chrysostom (16 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
How? You mentioned the powder was tasty that day.
posted by nowhere man at 9:17 AM on December 7, 2012


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posted by lalochezia at 9:47 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nice post, and a thoughtful article. i know that area pretty well, and have been on those mountains after a heavy snowfall. the lure of fresh pow can be very powerful.

. for those who died doing what they loved. sorrow for those they left behind. hope for those who can learn from tragedies like this.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:03 AM on December 7, 2012


How did a group of expert skiers make such a deadly mistake?

The article says: groupthink plus the halo effect of more expert members of the group giving their opinions more weight than warranted. Avalanche education now focuses on aviation-style checklists to mitigate these normal human factors.
posted by zippy at 10:09 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Earth really wants us dead.* Ignoring that, regardless of the steps you take to ameliorate it, is always a mistake. Downhill skiing is inherently flipping off nature -- "Fuck you, gravity and climate! I do what I want!" Do people enjoy it and should they be allowed to? Sure. But it's still actively risking death more or less every time you do it.

* - Credit to Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the sentiment, if not the words.
posted by Etrigan at 10:23 AM on December 7, 2012


People do all kinds of things every day that are riskier than they think they are. Driving a car, eating beef, soaking in a hot tub. 30 years ago I would've said smoking. Backcountry skiing is another one of those things. The stakes are just more obviously high and the downside more spectacular when it happens.
posted by gurple at 10:29 AM on December 7, 2012


Hmmm. I admit to finding articles like this fascinating. But there's always such a weird dichotomy (in the journalism and the reactions) between:

1) Nature is incredibly powerful and we are often helpless before it
and
2) What mistakes did these people make, and how were they responsible for their own deaths?

It is possible for an awful accident to be just that: an awful accident. Like with an auto accident or any other misfortune, there will always be things that could have been done differently. But the tendency to blame the victims seems to run much higher with these outdoor stories.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like with an auto accident or any other misfortune, there will always be things that could have been done differently. But the tendency to blame the victims seems to run much higher with these outdoor stories.

But people get blame all the time for accidental deaths. Traffic accidents especially so. I don't see these types of stories as any different. If people are at fault when putting themselves into risky situations it certainly benefits others who come to such risky situations afterwards to know how and why things may have gone wrong in past, similar circumstances.

People die. Sometimes it's their fault. Sometimes it's someone else's fault. And other times, no one is at fault. I think it is OK to reflect on and discuss that after the fact.

Also, Outside magazine rocks the casbah.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:54 AM on December 7, 2012


The fundamental problem, I think, is that humans aren't very good at risk assessment. Especially in unnatural situations like badass downhill skiing. Or rock climbing, which is where it hits home for me. It's so easy to get lazy about double-checking, so easy to be less than objective, that people routinely take risks that are far more severe than they realize. Sometimes, sadly, that's a fatal mistake.

.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:03 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


What I found interesting was that there is a checklist designed for this exact situation to accurately evaluate the risk. Things like that are needed. What I find sad and not surprising in the least is that the halo effect seems to have caused people to not even think about objectively evaluating risk.
posted by Hactar at 11:17 AM on December 7, 2012


As always, reading about avalanches ends up with me unknowingly holding my breath. Most of the disasters out there waiting to kill us are scary, but I find avalanches particularly terrifying.

I think this first-person view of a skier experiencing an avalanche was posted to the blue at some point. Although about three minutes are not much happening, if you want to get the full effect it's best not to skip anything.

It's the same in mountaineering, the dynamic of how groups work, and everywhere really. I've deferred to the generally more experienced members of a group when I probably shouldn't have, and though I did voice my concerns I didn't do so loudly. Thankfully someone else backed me up or we would've been walking the wrong direction in very bad conditions, and who knows if we would've gotten down before the weather turned really bad. Come to think of it, at least one instance of this has come up on every big trip I've been on.

Sobering reminder that it's always worth speaking up if something feels wrong. Thanks for posting the article.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:44 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


"...Megan Michelson lived to tell about it, but she can't shake off a haunting question: How did a group of expert skiers make such a deadly mistake?"

The life of the writer Megan Michelson does seem unfortunately eventful. At the end of her avalanche article, it states:

ESPN.com freeskiing editor Megan Michelson wrote about her stepfather’s killer in January 2011.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:45 AM on December 7, 2012


Those airbag devices sound like they should be part of the standard kit for back country skiers. Amazing things.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:46 AM on December 7, 2012


I did a lot of snowboarding at Stevens during the season I was unemployed and "looking for work" ten years ago. It's such an amazingly beautiful place and even though it's so rugged and potentially dangerous you're so close to a lift or a lodge that it's easy to lose sight of just how deadly the mountain can be.
posted by photoslob at 12:27 PM on December 7, 2012


Yeah, photoslob is very correct. The backside at Steven's is pretty gnarly in some places. Very deceptive. That innocent little path through the trees can often land you in deep doo doo.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:21 PM on December 7, 2012


But the tendency to blame the victims seems to run much higher with these outdoor stories.

I don't see it as blaming the victims. I think there's a very clear thread in these Outside stories highlighting their cautionary tale nature and suggesting that many people find it all too easy to get beyond their capability to, for example, self-rescue.

2) is simply saying 1) applies, so what precautions can you take that will keep you from sharing the fate of the subjects? If we aren't learning from these deaths, they are worth nothing. If we put ourselves in the same position as these highly capable people, are we also putting others at risk?

I must say this was a shorter and less exhaustive article than, say, the Krakauer stories.
posted by dhartung at 1:53 PM on December 7, 2012


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