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Kodak Courage: Are wintersports trends promoting a false sense of security?

Gear is safer. Are you? Better airbags, beacons and communication devices have made wintersports less risky. But the industry's addiction to stunts, sweet video clips, and social media sharing has us pushing boundaries in dangerous ways.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

On Dec. 20, the New York Times published “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a stunning six-part multimedia presentation detailing an avalanche that killed three expert skiers outside the boundary at Stevens Pass Ski Area in Washington nearly a year ago.

The accident has become a kind of “perfect storm” example to a wider audience of what can go wrong in wild weather situations, and the emblematic incident among a series of high-profile deaths that have rocked the wintersports industry.

Just a month before the Washington slide, whose victims included Stevens Pass Marketing Director Chris Rudolph and Freeskiing World Tour head judge Jim Jack, Winter Market was reeling with the news that superpipe skiing icon Sarah Burke had succumbed to injuries sustained in an accident in Park City. Then in March, popular blogger Steve Romeo, along with skiing partner Chris Onufer, were killed by a slide in the Tetons.

Powder Magazine Editor John Stifter, who was part of the group at Stevens Pass, said the accumulated deaths made it seem as if some sort of epidemic had hit the tight-knit snowsports community.

“Over the past five to 10 years, we have lost these remarkable individuals who are so significant to the sport that it’s impossible to ignore,” Stifter said. “Everyone was making comments that they had never seen this happen at such a consistent rate and without any correlation to other sports of similar genres. You look at what happened last year, combined with the deaths of pioneers like C.R. Johnson, Doug Coombs and Shane McConkey, and in comparison to mainstream sports it’s the equivalent of losing people like LeBron James, Sidney Crosby or Tom Brady.”

In the ensuing media crush, everyone from to core outdoor publications tried to make sense of the string of tragedies. In a cover story titled “Why Do the Best Skiers Keep Dying?” Powder Editor-at-Large Matt Hansen put the spotlight on everything from innovations in gear to the ubiquity of social media to the impacts of climate change.

Others point to a lack of proper education. And, if anything, the opposite message might be coming from the industry — go higher, faster, wilder … and capture it all on film, post it to Facebook or upload it to YouTube.

No Such Thing as Sidecountry
Backcountry gear sales are an incredible bright spot in an otherwise static or declining snowsports hardgoods market, and major ski and snowboard brands such as Marker and Burton have recently begun attending Outdoor Retailer to capitalize on the lift-serve to self-serve crossover opportunity. A continuing arc of innovation in boots, bindings and boards allows more and more of the powder-focused populace to access terrain that used to be the sole domain of expert riders.

Along with product development, ski-area access gates allow people to transfer from a controlled snowpack to a potentially lethal “sidecountry” snowpack with such ease that many of them might not realize how different an environment they’ve entered.

“I think we have to be very careful with the trend of what people are calling ‘sidecountry.’ People need to understand that there really is no gray area between being in the area and being in the backcountry,” said Scarpa North America CEO Kim Miller. “You’re either in the area or you’re not in terrain that’s controlled for avalanches. I think it’s exciting that people are interested in the more adventurous side of skiing, but we also have to make sure people are educated.”

To Miller’s point, the term “sidecountry” is such a misnomer that in December, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) put out a press release titled, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry.’”

“By definition, this terrain — just like all other backcountry — is not controlled or maintained by ski area operators or area patrols,” NSAA stated, adding that “these terms seem to imply that some portions of backcountry are kinder and gentler than other areas.”

NSAA reported that last season seven fatalities occurred in backcountry terrain accessed from a ski area (according to statistics provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center), and three similar fatalities during the 2010/11 season. There have been 49 such incidents since the 1999/98 season.

With heavy snowfall that has blessed parts of the country this year, even in-bounds terrain has had its dangers. On Christmas Eve, an Alpine Meadows ski patroller was killed doing snow control work in California. The previous week, a skier was buried and rescued from an in-bounds slide at Washington’s Crystal Mountain Ski Area.

As such, NSAA has been highlighting backcountry and boundary management at its Winter Conferences and Fall Education Seminars.

Accidents Will Happen
Of course, only a universal vow of off-piste abstinence will ever completely prevent accidents in the backcountry. Thus, the innovation in backcountry hardgoods has been matched by a series of breakthroughs in the development of snow-safety accessories.

One of the few bright spots emerging from the Stevens Pass avalanche was how skier Elyse Saugstad survived by deploying an ABS airbag.

After years of proven success in Europe, airbags were being embraced by professional patrollers and guides in the U.S. But after Saugstad told her story everywhere from USA Today to “The Today Show,” you could hardly buy an airbag pack to save your life, as it were.

Bruce Edgerly, vice president of Backcountry Access, which manufactures its own line of Float airbags, said it’s led to a sea change in how backcountry travelers can increase their rate of survival in an avalanche.

“There’s a kind of evolution we’ve been witnessing where it used to be reactive to how we responded to an avalanche,” said Edgerly. “At first only the pros had equipment and you were reliant on an organized rescue. Then, when we accelerated the easy use of beacons, it became more about companion rescue. And now we’ve reached a point where people are trying to avoid getting buried at all. Ideally, the next phase is where there’s no need for a rescue.”

Though the number of U.S. avalanche fatalities has stayed steady, averaging 25 per season over the past 10 years, some critics who think the more invincible people feel with new equipment, the more likely it is accidents will occur.

Doug Workman, a mountain guide and former ski patroller who consults with Mammut as snow safety adviser, thinks that’s absurd.

“The concept that added safety equipment is making backcountry skiing more dangerous is an inherently flawed argument,” he said, stressing that despite his work with Mammut, his opinions are
“strongly” his own. “The bottom line is that skiing in avalanche terrain is an inherently dangerous activity, and as the numbers of people doing that increase, more people are going to get hurt, and more people are going to die.

“If you really want to know what’s going to contribute to more accidents,” Workman added, “it’s open gates, AT bindings and ski porn.”

Get The Picture?
Certainly, some feel that the biggest contributor to any increase in on-snow injuries will be the same factors affecting all outdoor and action-sports industries — social media and video.

“I don’t have any statistics that go along with this, but it does seem to me that nowadays after a storm you see more people rushing to extreme terrain with their GoPros and the idea of trying to be the next TGR [Teton Gravity Research],” said Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. “I think what we’re seeing is that more and more people are just not matching the terrain with the snowpack. To me, last year was a good example of people getting caught in terrain where there was zero tolerance for error.”

Todd Jones, co-founder of Teton Gravity Research, which deserves plenty of credit for inspiring skiers and riders to go deeper and steeper, said that none of these accidents occur in front of cameras as far as he’s aware.

“That stuff is not stuff that is happening on film,” said Jones. “None of those were Kodak courage moments. Sarah’s accident occurred while she was out training, and the Stevens Pass slide and the slide that caught Romeo and Onufer were just about bros out shredding and pushing the envelope together.”

Jones is quick to add, though, that his entire athlete and cinematography crew comes to Salt Lake City each year for the International Pro Rider Workshop, a three-day snow and medical safety seminar. “We put a lot of emphasis on safety and training,” he said. “I think the most effective thing we can do is keep talking about these things and analyzing why they occur.”

Tremper agrees, adding that the most worrisome course of action for our industry would be to not talk about these accidents at all. “I think it’s good that we as a community are kind of wringing our hands and asking is there a better way, and should we be doing things differently,” he said. “That’s always a positive to taking a long look at yourself.”

–Peter Kray