Ski Patroller Shares How to Navigate Inbound Avalanche Terrain Safely

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The recent tragedy of an inbound avalanche fatality at Palisades Tahoe is a solemn reminder of the natural disaster possibilities in our region. Moonshine Ink sends many thoughts of comfort to the family of Kenneth Kidd.

With Kidd and many snow recreators in mind, this month’s You Asked. They Answered. is focused on avalanche education and awareness.

Since the winter of 2009/10, there have been 18 inbound avalanche fatalities across the U.S. (compared to 366 avalanche fatalities in total) as of press time.

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For insight on avalanche safety from a ski patroller, I called Mike Ferrari, who’s worked at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe for 35 years, 25 of those as the resort’s patrol and risk manager. Ferrari has witnessed two avalanche fatalities at Mt. Rose in his time, in 2002 and 2016: both taking place in the Chutes terrain while it was closed.

~ AH


What determines avalanche terrain?

In most conditions, any slope over 30 degrees would be considered avalanche terrain. Exception would be if that 30-degree slope is heavily, heavily forested, almost forested to the point that you can’t ski through it. The magic number for avalanche terrain is right at about 38 degrees. A lot of the black diamond/double black diamond-type runs at ski areas are in that 38-degree zone, a few degrees each way.

SKI SMART: Even if you’re recreating within ski resort boundaries, avalanches can happen. Carry the proper equipment, recreate with a companion, and recognize how quickly weather conditions can change. Photo by Sarah Miller/Moonshine Ink

What are skiers’/riders’ responsibilities around inbound avalanche safety?

We do everything we can to reduce the hazard of avalanche to an acceptable level. However, it is not possible to reduce the risk to zero. Basically, avalanches are an inherent risk in avalanche terrain and at a lot of ski areas, and especially here in the Sierra, there is a lot of inbound avalanche terrain. Ski areas have done an incredible job over the years at reducing the hazard to an acceptable level.

DOUBLE TROUBLE: One day after an avalanche took the life of Kenneth Kidd, a second avalanche occurred at Palisades Tahoe, this one on the Alpine Meadows side. No individuals were injured or killed. Photo courtesy Kristin Derrin

One of the things a skier or a snowboarder can do is if you’re gonna recreate and ski inbounds at a ski resort in avalanche terrain is to ski with a partner and be searchable. What that means is that you either carry an avalanche transceiver, also sometimes called a beacon, that’s on and transmitting, or you have a RECCO reflector. RECCO reflectors come in lots of high-end clothing. They come in boots, and they sometimes come in helmets. Every ski area in the Sierra has a RECCO detector, so in the event somebody is buried, one of the things we’re gonna do when we go to look for somebody is we will deploy a team that has a RECCO detector to try and find somebody under the snow.

[RECCO is] a passive system that you don’t have to turn on or off. In essence, it’s an optimized copper diode that, when somebody with a detector comes, it sends out a dual harmonic radar where you’re sending out a signal, it hits that copper diode, and the frequency is doubled, and it comes back to the detector. One of the beauties of the RECCO system is it’s fully directional. When you get a reflection with your detector, you’re pointing right at where the victim would be so you can go straight at it versus with an avalanche transceiver, which is still the best way to find somebody under the snow, you’re working on electromagnetic fields and so you tend to come into targets, or people you’re trying to find, on an arc.

People, if they are inbounds, should pay attention to the conditions. If it’s snowing a lot and the wind’s blowing a lot, avalanche conditions can develop quite rapidly in avalanche terrain.

~ Mike Ferrari, patrol and risk manager at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, program director at National Avalanche School 


Local Avalanche Education Opportunities

Below is a roundup of local avalanche courses. Information courtesy Sierra Avalanche Center.

Education Provider Classes offered Locations
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 South Lake Tahoe – Kirkwood – Gardnerville
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 South Lake Tahoe – Kirkwood – Gardnerville
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Bear Valley Area
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe | Mt. Rose Area | South Lake Tahoe – Kirkwood – Gardnerville
Avalanche Awareness Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Avalanche Awareness | Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe | Mt. Rose Area | South Lake Tahoe – Kirkwood – Gardnerville | Bay Area | Reno
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Level 1 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe
Rescue | Level 1 | Level 2 Donner Summit – Truckee – North Lake Tahoe

Author

  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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