This season was a particularly dangerous one for back country enthusiasts. So far, 26 people have died in avalanches during the 2013-14 snow season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. An estimated 228 people have died in slides since the beginning of the 2006-2007 season.
Most experts see the increasingly popular use of backcountry ski and snowboard touring equipment that allows greater access to dangerous terrain outside ski area boundaries.
Tom Murphy, operations director for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, believes that a “tipping point” has been reached. Murphy said that the access to backcountry equipment has far outpaced the expertise needed to survive in avalanche country.
In response to this trend, a new collaborative effort, Project Zero, has been initiated between AIARE, Snowsports Industries of America, Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the Utah Avalanche Center, the Northwest Avalanche Center, the Canadian Avalanche Centre, the National Ski Areas Association and the National Ski Patrol aimed at reducing avalanche-related deaths to zero by 2025.
Project Zero was based on Vision Zero, a Swedish campaign to reduce the number of automobile fatalities in that country. The first step for the project came this winter, when avalanche experts employed focus groups of backcountry users to gauge their level of expertise and how they prepared themselves before entering remote areas.
The majority of backcountry users learned their skills from friends who had taken courses. In order to further study the peer-to-peer avalanche education process, Project Zero started a video contest, soliciting submissions from backcountry users. The resulting collection demonstrates how skiers and snowboarders viewed backcountry terrain, many of which depict dangerous conduct which invites disaster.
The research suggests that most backcountry users believe that having a beacon, shovel and probe is adequate preparation for venturing in to the out of bounds areas. Project Zero is attempting to educate users that a conscious decision process must be part of the preparation, where skiers consider all the characteristics which contribute to danger levels. No equipment will eliminate the need for informed choices based upon real time conditions.