Andrew Jesaitis

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Sidecountry Scare
Feb 17, 2010
4 minutes read

Yesterday, an enormous avalanche occurred just outside of the southern boundary of Bridger Bowl. I saw it go from the lift, but unfortunately did not have my camera with me. For photos check out the GNFAC gallery.

The entire NE face of Saddle Peak slid leaving a six foot crown that propagated more than 1000 feet. The layer that failed had formed in mid-December and had persisted until yesterday. Scarier still was the fact that there were “hundreds of tracks” on the slope that slid. Fortunately, no one was buried or injured in the avalanche. For photos check out the GNFAC gallery.

I hadn’t skied Saddle Peak this year. There had been a couple times when my group got to the southern gate and discussed hiking the additional 15 minutes to the top of the peak. Each time I pushed hard to stay in bounds. It wasn’t that I thought the slope was unsafe, it was the fact that I didn’t know how stable the slope was–I hadn’t dug a pit in the area, I didn’t check the avy report, I hadn’t had a chance to gather the necessary information to make a good decision. Thousands of people however headed out the gate and dropped in oblivious to the consequences.

Now I have no problem with people who truly evaluated the conditions and made an informed decision–it is their life and they should be able to take risks they feel are reasonable. A few of those thousand skiers knew that there was a realistic possibility of that slope going and taking their life. However, not everyone in the ass-to-nose line out to Saddle Peak on a powder day was making an informed decision.

I have seen singletons walk out the gate, without a pack (meaning no shovel or probe), and proceed to drop in on Saddle Peak on top of another skier. Each of these decisions is progressively worse. And the last decision not only endangers the the single skier, but those below him as well.

Walking out the gates into the sidecountry make me much more nervous than pure backcountry touring for many reasons.

First, if you have a couple hour skin in front of you, you have a lot of time to ponder the conditions and open your eyes to the consequences of a poor decision. Second, is just the fact that you have more time to study your line and you want to make it count. Easy access inspires a lot of “I think it goes” decisions. Finally, on a full blown tour your group (usually/hopefully) feels alone and you automatically adjust your risk tolerance because you are self reliant. That just doesn’t seem to happen in the sidecountry.

I think as you gain experience you are able to force the mindset. But, you often can’t make up for the lack of information you get when you are out for a tour. Maybe you didn’t get the avy report? You definitely didn’t hear the cracking and woofing as you skinned in. And it is much harder to get your less experienced buddies to stop and dig a pit.

I think that Bridger Bowl has done a fantastic job balancing the risks and opening up some of the gnarliest terrain in the lower 48. Given the current setup, I think the management of Slushman’s is as good as it can be.

But, perhaps there is a constructive (albeit radical) solution to the management and education of sidecountry skiers. Close Slushman’s to the public (leave the lift in for patrol access), but keep the terrain inbounds. This change would force people to look around at the terrain as they skin up. It would make it much more difficult to get in over your head in terms of risk management. And most importantly it would allow people to practice safe backcountry travel in a controlled environment. This would be especially valuable with the recent explosion in the popularity of backcountry touring.

No activity (especially in the backcountry) is without risk, but it comes down to how you evaluate and manage that risk. Risk management is a difficult skill to teach and learn. The only real teacher is experience. I’d like to naively hope the Saddle Peak slide will teach the necessary lesson. At best, people might be a little jittery going out the gates for the rest of this season. But, come next winter the memory will be too distant to matter for most.


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