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Skiing The Back Country Is Intoxicating, And Dangerous


Two young athletes on the development squad of the U.S. ski team were killed in an avalanche in Austria this week. Ronnie Berlack was 20 years old. Bryce Astle was 19. They were part of a group of six people who were skiing out of bounds, away from groomed slopes, when the snow gave way. Their deaths contribute to a growing and alarming statistic - the number of expert skiers who are killed each year in avalanches. We're joined now by Grayson Schaffer, senior editor at Outside Magazine, with whom we speak now and then about the world of adventure. Grayson, thanks for being with us.

GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: The deaths of Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle were terrific tragedies. Were they avoidable?

SCHAFFER: Well, I mean, there're still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the deaths of these two bright young ski stars. They were in an area that was closed, you know, where the snow wasn't being controlled for avalanches with explosives, but it's still unclear how they got there.

SIMON: And I gather they didn't have avalanche beacons or shovels?

SCHAFFER: Yeah, you know, and most people when they ski in a resort don't carry avalanche equipment. You know, typically when you're riding chair lifts, you're skiing in an area where the ski patrol has done a really thorough job mitigating the avalanche hazard. And so that suggests that they didn't have any plans to ski off-piste that day - or what we would call in the backcountry - so that they, you know, probably either made a spur-of-the-moment decision or just ended up there by mistake.

SIMON: And is there perceptible increase in the number of skiers who are killed in avalanches?

SCHAFFER: What seems to be happening is that the numbers stay about the same, but that the types of people who are killed are actually, you know, have avalanche experience, are expert skiers who have taken avalanche training. There was this case of a woman, Olivia Buchanan, who died on Tuesday around Silverton, Colorado. And she had, you know, avalanche level-two training, was actually studying snow science at Montana State University.

So snow safety experts are now focusing more than ever on what are called human factors rather than trying to, you know, teach people how to analyze the snow to say whether the snow stability is good. So these are questions like, you know, are you being lured into a trap by groupthink? Do you want to impress your friends? And more often than not in an avalanche fatality, several of these factors are going to be present.

SIMON: Are experienced skiers just pushing themselves more?

SCHAFFER: Some of it is just in the numbers. You know, there are more people than ever heading out into the backcountry. But the other piece of this is that skiing on tract powder in the backcountry is just like the most intoxicating form of skiing. You know, the images that we see in ski magazines, people flying down these high-alpine slopes. I mean, there's just nothing else like it.

SIMON: Let's finish up this week with a happier story from the mountains. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, a couple of Americans who've captivated a lot of people with their wintertime ascent of El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite. They're stalled right now, aren't they?

SCHAFFER: Well, you know, as of Thursday, Caldwell had finished off the last of these sort of really difficult pitches. And so he's just waiting for Jorgeson to try to compete his last 5.14-pitch, and then they can basically take a sort of victory lap to the top.

SIMON: What's this pitch look like?

SCHAFFER: They call this the loop pitch. And previously, they had explained this required a sort of 8-foot dynamic move where you would - you know, the climber would sort of like do a Hollywood-style leap from one little set of holds over to another set of holds 8 feet through the air, 1,200 feet off the ground and then catch on to the wall again. They've since figured out that there's a better way to do it, which involves downclimbing to try to get around this thing, so it's incredibly difficult. I mean, for you and I, I think even trying to touch these holds would be difficult.

SIMON: Grayson, thank you for putting you and I in that sentence.

SCHAFFER: (Laughter). We can always aspire.

SIMON: Grayson Schaffer of Outside Magazine, speaking with us from Santa Fe. Thanks very so much.

SCHAFFER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.