Sports Law • Risk Management

Back Country Skiing Avalanche Risk Management

Earlier in the week, professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, was enjoying a back country ski outing with two other skiers near Stevens Pass in Washington state when an avalanche swept them down the mountain. Saugstad immediately deployed her airbag that was in her backpack, which saved her life while three others died in the avalanche.
Back country skiing risk management, includes use of equipment such as avalanche airbags, which allow a person to avoid burial by an avalanche by forcing the person to the surface.

Fortunately Saugstad was pulled out of the snow quickly and so survived the avalanche. Generally, the minimum avalanche equipment includes a shovel, probe and beacon, which are helpful in rescuing buried victims. Sturdy shovels are necessary to dig a person out of the snow. Collapsible probes can be used to find the exact location of a person under the snow. Beacons are transceivers that emit a beep or send a signal that will allow a buried victim to be located. Other equipment is available that can be extremely helpful in avalanches, such as a Recco rescue system, an Avalung, and a Satellite Electronic Notification Devices (SEND). It’s important for ski groups to be trained regarding avalanche safety and use of equipment.

Skiers will benefit from knowledge of avalanche terrain in order to reduce their risk exposure. Skiers can also minimize their risks by having fewer people on the slope, never skiing alone, and being careful to choose the safest routes. Groups should also camp in safe places and plan escape routes. Communication regarding safe route choices and escape routes between group members is important. With proper risk management while skiing in back country, skiers will reduce their risk of being buried by an avalanche and if they are, there is a greater chance of survival.