To the three snowboard-packing Spokane-area dudes who brainlessly braved the popular out-of-bounds terrain high above Nelson, British Columbia's Whitewater Resort one day recently, let me offer humble thanks. These three amigos, who I bumped into while touring the nearby British Columbian mountains over the holidays, were sad-but-true poster boys for the this-is-what-you-don't-do-in-the-backcountry demographic.
You'd think they never heard of all those who've lost their lives in the many avalanches that have killed backcountry ski and snowboard enthusiasts all over the mountains of North America in years past. Most recently, for example, a 46-year old Colorado man perished near Revelstoke, B.C., just last week.
Recent avalanche death tolls ought to be enough to convince newcomers to the winter wilds about the vital importance of mountain safety. If not, perhaps the boys' actions -- or bonehead lack thereof -- will persuade rookies to take more care.
The scenario was tragic, in a Beavis and Butthead sort of way.
"You guys know where you're going?" my touring companion and I inquired.
"No man. But we kinda thought this way," said Dude No. 1, pointing towards an infamous slide zone beneath the shadow of Whitewater's 7,600-foot Ymir Peak.
"You got your transceivers?"
"Oh yeah," said Dude No. 2, the absence of backpacks or snowshoes providing proof of boneheadedness.
"You got shovels and probes?"
"Yeah," said Dude No. 3, huffing and puffing beneath a damp cotton hood and unzipped winter coat.
"But it's in the car."
Ask ski patrols and park wardens around the northwest United States and western Canada about the increasing popularity of backcountry touring -- an endeavor pursued by those in search of tranquility and deep, dry turns -- and you'll probably hear the same thing.
"It's unbelievable," says John Gray, veteran ski patrol supervisor at Whitefish, Montana's Big Mountain. "It's huge. People are going out by the hundreds on busy days."
As is the case at destinations like Whitewater and Sandpoint, Idaho's Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Big Mountain's lift access and nearby out-of-bounds terrain has given way to the common practicing of "lapping," where adventure seekers head up a chair, scoot beyond the resort boundary, ride an uncontrolled slope, bowl or chute, and then beetle back to the base within an hour, repeating the route all day long.
The trouble, says Gray, is the new hordes haven't got a clue what sort of danger they're putting themselves and their fellow riders in -- or how to get out of it.
"I would say 50 percent are ready for what they're getting into," Gray estimates.
While he admits that number would have been closer to a measly 20 percent just a few years ago, the awareness of every other out-of-bounds rider is dangerously inadequate.
"More and more, we've got people going out who don't know what they're getting themselves into. They don't have the proper equipment -- or even if they've spent the money and do have the proper equipment, they haven't trained with it.
"And to have an avalanche transceiver that you don't practice with," Gray surmises, "is meaningless."
Who's most apt to head out into the great white yonder with more gonads than grey matter? The answer mightn't be a surprise.
"It seems like the skiers and telemarkers tend to be more experienced than the average male snowboarder, aged 18 to 25," says Schweitzer patroller Clint Frank.
Schweitzer patrols have already been out twice this winter to rescue young male snowboarders who were lost.
"They didn't have a game plan when they left the base. It was just like, 'Hey, we're following someone else's tracks.' They were just kind of going for it. We've got a combination of experienced and inexperienced people out there," says Frank.
While the push to educate the backcountry-travelling masses is greater than ever -- Big Mountain took a page out of Canadian avalanche public relations last weekend by hosting its first Avalanche Awareness Day -- so too is the propensity for more touring troubles.
According to Gray, more and more areas are opening up their boundaries to adventurous skiers and 'boarders.
The 59-year-old has been working the hill since 1972, back when the resort's boundaries were closed to any recreational access. But in the late '70s, Big Mountain was among the first western U.S. resorts to open its boundaries to tourers. Schweitzer constructed backcountry access gates along its boundaries three winters ago, opening up terrain that Frank describes as "endless," most of it in prime slab avalanche terrain -- anything between 30 and 45 degrees. Out-of-bounds terrain at Whitewater and Rossland, B.C.'s Red Mountain has been open for years, but signage has become more blatant than ever. At Whitewater, signs clearly note a minimum $500 fee that will be slapped on anyone who requires rescue from the backcountry. That's if you live to pay the bill.
Gates and warnings are of little consequence, however, for those who happen to trigger an avalanche or suffer severe injury beyond the bounds. The only thing that will save you, says Gray, is smarts.
"The response time is going to be lengthy. If you do get caught in an avalanche, you better be able to count on your buddies to help you."
"Otherwise, he says, " it'll be too late."
Darren Davidson is a freelance writer who lives in Nelson, B.C.
American Avalanche Association (www.avalanche.org); Northwest Avalanche Forecast Center in Seattle (206-526-6677); Idaho Panhandle National Forecast Avalanche Center (208-765-7323); Canadian Avalanche Association (www.avalanche.ca, or 800-667-1105)