Are Avalanches an Inherent Risk in Skiing?

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What is Inherent Risk?

The Colorado Ski Safety Act is currently being disputed in the state’s Supreme Court. Salynda Fleury is suing Winter Park Resort after her husband, Christopher Norris, was killed there in an avalanche in 2012. Lower courts sided with the resort, saying that avalanches are covered under the Ski Safety Act, which states, “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” The job now for the state Supreme Court is to interpret the meaning of the term “inherent dangers and risks in skiing.”

Some of the inherent risks of skiing are covered under the act, such as “Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.”

A ten foot crown on Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain, 2014

A ten foot crown on Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain, 2014

Are In-Bound Avalanches an Inherent Risk in Skiing?

When the Colorado Ski Safety Act was enacted in 1979, few skiers were venturing into avalanche prone terrain. Much of the Act focuses on merging on crowded trails, riding lifts, use of proper signage and the like. Very little of the Act mentions responsibilities of either skier or resort occurring in off-piste and expert terrain.

Today more skiers and riders are venturing into avalanche prone terrain than ever. In some places, such as Crystal Mountain, this terrain is marked by “Avalanche Prone” signs. Washington State Ski Law does not explicitly require these signs, however.

The question remains: Are avalanches considered an inherent risk of the sport?

It’s no secret that avalanches are tough to forecast. Even when a slope should slide (due to changing weather conditions and slope angle, for example), often it does not. When avalanches do happen, however, it is most commonly due to changing weather conditions. In Washington state those changes are more obvious. We have more direct-action avalanches here. It storms, it avalanches. In the Rockies, where deep slab instabilities can persist, the weather changes that affect avalanches can be more long term. A prolonged cold snap, for example, can weaken layers that lead to avalanches. This can happen even on a sunny day.

The avalanche that destroyed Crystal Mountain's Chair 6

The avalanche that destroyed Crystal Mountain’s Chair 6

Why this matters to the ski industry

The ski industry is watching this Supreme Court case closely. If Fleury wins her case, ski areas will be much more reticent to open avalanche terrain. At Crystal, we try to open our avalanche terrain–namely Southback, Bear Pits, and Northway–as soon as possible. Skier compaction is the name of the game in avalanche mitigation. In essence we tame avalanches one snowflake at a time. Left to sit untracked, slopes often lose strength over time, if those weak layers get buried by deep slabs and become problems later on.

Rider Kyle Miller PC: Jason Hummel

Rider Kyle Miller PC: Jason Hummel

Why this matters to the skiing public

People want to ski and ride in avalanche terrain. In-bound avalanches are still rare. It may seem oxymoronic, but the more we can keep that terrain open, the safer it will be. The safest slope is one that’s groomed or mogul-filled. Of course, someone has to lay down the first tracks, and by my estimation there’s plenty of willing takers for that task.

What do you think? Should avalanches be considered an inherent risk or should ski areas be liable for in-bound avalanche fatalities and injuries?

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7 responses »

  1. Inherent Risk. When in the mountains, in or out of bounds, you need to take responsibility for your own safety. Mother Nature has a mind of her own and you must be aware at all times!

  2. Let’s hope we have an inbound avy problem this year because that will mean we have snow! There have been some pretty good slides inbounds over the years but I’ve always felt safe and had advance notice of the dangers on those days.

  3. Of course it is an inherent risk. Unless the risk can be removed, the risk remains. That only happens in the summer when it disappears. It is inherent. If they want to sue, they should forget the obvious and try to establish gross negligence in their duty of care, as reflected by industry standards. In canada the inherent risk is communicated to the guest with ticket purchase. After that it is up to the service provider to make all reasonable effort to mitigate risk. If they failed in that, you got a case for civil damages.

  4. Though I grew up skiing in Alaska, I didn’t have any idea that avalanches could happen at a ski area until I was an adult. I had not one single clue at all. How would I know? I was a kid and I didn’t have skier parents nor did I belong to a ski team. I got dropped off and picked up at the end of the day. It’s a risk not well communicated to guests, in my opinion. That has changed somewhat with the recent emphasis on backcountry access. It seems that going to the backcountry used to be something we’d do every now and then, when the conditions were right (read: perfect). Now, people want to go every single day, no matter what, as if they are trying to prove they are good enough at avy assessment to ski anytime, any condition. The ski industry probably should make some changes to keep up with that, though it’s not going to help the industry much to have to overcommunicate to every new bunny-hill user “YOU COULD SMOTHER IN SNOW IN ANY SECOND IF YOU SKI HERE.”

    I think it’s surprising that any ski area allows backcountry access, frankly. Yay for us, but wow, seems like a can of worms for certain.

    • Good point Jill. Certainly, there’s a big difference between allowing BC access through a gate marked as such versus exposing guests to the risk of avalanches within the ski area boundary. At Crystal we have some groomed slopes that sit below avalanche paths. Managing that risk is a major priority for us. But whether or not the risk is inherent in the sport is the interesting question here. IMO avalanches are included in changing snow conditions.

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