La Niña has kept its promise. Missoula skiers and snowboarders were doing cartwheels last week as a massive winter storm deposited upwards of 30 inches of Pacific-charged snow right in their laps.
But the dangers we all know accompany such a miracle dump materialized almost immediately. Two Missoula men were caught in slides outside the Snowbowl boundary Dec. 28. In a turn as miraculous as the snowfall itself, both survived.
"It was really fortunate that nobody was completely buried," says West Central Montana Avalanche Center Director Steve Karkanen. "The conditions were nasty that day."
The avalanches occurred while the duo was skinning out of the basin. The first slide only caught one skier, but the second swept both downhill. One man suffered a laceration to the head. Karkanen says neither are prepared to speak with the media.
Last week's avalanches didn't claim any lives, but other recent skiing accidents did. Niclas Waeschle, a teenage exchange student from Ulm, Germany, died Jan. 2 from injuries sustained after he fell in a tree well at Whitefish Mountain Resort several days earlier. In late December, a ski instructor from Philipsburg was killed when he collided with a tree at Discovery.
The two tragedies mirror a Christmas Eve incident at Hogadon Ski Area in Casper, Wyo., where a 23-year-old snowboarder reportedly slammed into a 5-year-old skier at high speed in the middle of a black diamond run. Both were pronounced dead at Wyoming Medical Center.
This recent string of on-area fatalities in the region underscores the importance of exercising caution even on groomers. Chairlift junkies face danger the same as backcountry powder hounds, whether that danger comes in the form of a mid-trail collision or a poorly planned turn in the trees. Skiers and snowboarders carry each other's lives in their hands as much—if not more—than their own.
Ultimately it comes down to awareness of the risks we snowsports enthusiasts take. Karkanen has noted a dramatic rise in the number of backcountry skiers in recent years—about 40 percent of whom, he says, don't report when they trigger an avalanche. That translates to a rise in the number of people who are at the mercy of the elements. Avalanche conditions have now stabilized, but the forecast calls for another heavy snowfall that likely won't mix well with the few low-density inches we received this week.
We only hope our fellow shredders will play it slow and safe for the rest of the season. Montana's ski scene has witnessed more than enough tragedy already.