Avalanches Can Be Real Threat at Resorts

by Dan Giesin | November 2, 2021

On the morning of March 31, 1982, a massive avalanche swept down the northern flanks of the Alpine Meadows ski area near Lake Tahoe and crashed into the base area, depositing up to 20 feet of snow in the resort’s parking lot.

In its wake, seven people were killed, three in the ski patrol hut that was engulfed by the slide, and four more in the parking lot.

It was fortunate that the resort had not opened to the public for the day because of the expected avalanche danger in the midst of a monster storm, or there surely would have a great many more deaths.

The incident, which is recalled in the new documentary, “Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche”, is grisly reminder that ski resorts are not exempt from the ravages of unstable snow.

Mitigating the Danger

Between 2010-11 and 2019-20 winter seasons, there 244 avalanche fatalities in the United States, according the statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association, with 14 deaths occurring inbounds at ski resorts. And just last season, there were four more fatalities from two separate inbounds incidents.

The dangers and risks of avalanches, which resorts try to mitigate with various methods, including explosives, ski cutting and slope analysis, are such that the Colorado Supreme Court, in 2016, determined that ski areas are legally protected from the damages done by slides, given that there’s no evidence of negligence.

“Ski patrols can minimize the danger to an extremely low level,” says Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center, which is under the aegis of the U.S. Forest Service on whose land most resorts lie. “But they can’t completely eliminate it.”

No Slope Is Completely Safe

According to the National Ski Areas Association, avalanche terrain are slopes that are generally greater than 30 degrees, though NSAA cautions that “snow slides and/or sluffs can happen on almost any terrain.”

Prime avalanche terrain may also be identified by “rock outcroppings or a defined lack of trees (indicating years of avalanche activity) or be exacerbated by a ‘terrain trap’ such as gully or concave topography.”

“Skiers and snowboarders should educate themselves about the risked involved but recreating in avalanche terrain,” says NSAA president Kelly Pawlak, “and take precautions whenever they are in avalanche-prone areas.”

Know Before You Go

As ski and snowboard technology and design improves, more and more skiers and boarders a venturing into inbounds terrain that was once the province of the likes of Shane McConkey or Scott Schmidt or Jeremy Jones. And this super-steep, super-gnarly terrain is prime breeding grounds for avalanches.

So it behooves people to know when and where to go or not to go.

And the first rule of thumb is don’t duck the ropes.

You could lose a lot more than your pass. 

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