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Getting Schooled in Avalanche Country

Essay by Michelle Nijhuis

Mountain Life – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Avalanche school?” asked my mother, a nervous note sounding through the phone line. “Why do you need to learn about avalanches?”

I felt like I was back in high school, earnestly trying to explain why I absolutely needed to go to that all-night party in the next town. Everybody needs to learn about avalanches, I said. It’s just what people do around here.

So I signed up for avalanche school, where I obediently listened to three days’ worth of stories that I would never tell my mother. Did you know that when you get stuck in an avalanche, the snow can pack around you like concrete, so tightly that you can’t even close your eyes? Or that avalanche victims often survive their tumbles, only to suffocate when masks of ice form over their faces?

After a couple of chillers like this, our hale and hearty teachers would give macabre grins and say something reassuring like, “Now, don’t think we’re trying to scare you.” This was usually followed by some Darwinian advice: “Just remember: If you’ve got the only avalanche shovel, lend it to your friend.”

I trembled a little when I put my skis back on the next weekend, but I did get out in the snow-shrouded backcountry again, and I did feel safer. Not only could I understand the once-mysterious daily avalanche report on the radio, but I knew a rotten, wind-loaded slope when I saw one. Even better, my friends and I all had our very own shovels. It was enough to make me forget, at least for a minute, about being stuck in an immovable block of snow with my eyes propped open.

Then I heard my mother’s voice. Why did I need to learn about avalanches, anyway? There were about 80 people in my avalanche class, and except for a few search-and-rescue jocks, we didn’t deal with snow for a living. We were waiters, and doctors, and teachers, and ski bums. We weren’t people who had to live with risk. We were people who chose it — even during this unusually deadly avalanche season, which has already claimed at least 20 lives in the West.

There are lots of justifications I could give my mother. I needed to learn about avalanches because backcountry skiing is beautiful, and peaceful, and a lot cheaper than a lift ticket. It’s one of the best ways to see the wilderness and wildlife in our frozen backyards. But there’s a more complicated answer: If I didn’t hurry up and go to avalanche school, I’d surely get buried by the crusty contradictions of life in the West.

In some ways, we backcountry skiers aren’t that different than early Anglo settlers. We like the thrill of risk, we like solitude, and we like to speechify about the glories of both. But like frontier-era Wyoming — which hated federal interference but led the nation in the amount of welfare it took in — we like to have an easy insurance policy on hand. Plenty of us are willing to put our lives on the line each weekend, but we feel a lot better when we carry along a $300 avalanche beacon or even an Avalung, a vest with a rubber mouthpiece that can keep you from suffocating under that dreaded ice mask.

TO THEIR CREDIT, a lot of avalanche pros are fighting the invasion of this glossy gear. Backcountry skiing, after all, is one of the last un-glossy sports, and some of the most expensive safety gear doesn’t make you all that much safer. At avalanche school, we learned more about the basics of avoiding avalanches than about using our brand-new beacons.

“These things only increase your chances of surviving an avalanche by 16 percent,” one of our teachers said gloomily. And when one eager student suggested using a cell phone to call for help after a backcountry disaster, the lecturer said shortly: “You’re in San Juan County. Cell phones don’t work here.”

Our instructors were working hard to save us from our very Western instincts. They talked a lot about snow crystals and slopemeters, but they had one very simple message: If you’re going to ignore your mother and go backcountry skiing, make sure to learn a little bit about your playground first. Because no one — not the welfare-paying federal government, and definitely not your friendly sales associate from REI — is going to show up to save you later on.

So Mom, I’m sorry, but I think I’ve absorbed a little too much of Western culture. I live and play out here, and our inverted logic makes backcountry skiing worth its built-in risk. But I promise to carry my own shovel, and I’ll lend it to my friends if I have to. Most of all, I’ll keep my eyes stuck wide open.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives in western Colorado.