At the suggestion of a reader, we are reposting a message from Edmonds resident Bill Derry regarding the dangers of backcountry skiing, which he wrote after his son Jacob “Jake” Derry died in an avalanche March 22 while backcountry skiing at Snoqualmie Pass.
There is no such thing as backcountry ski safety.
Jake’s beacon didn’t work because he was actually in an avalanche. In an actual avalanche beacons often don’t work because they are crushed. Jake’s beacon was crushed and also stopped working because it was ripped off his body. Beacons are designed to stop working when the straps are removed because they assume you are done skiing.
Jake’s avalung was shredded. An avalung is also useless in an avalanche because in an avalanche your lungs are compressed and you can’t breathe and because you can’t move your arms to reach it because you are trapped by snow or because your arms are broken.
The probe and the shovel are useless if the beacon doesn’t work and you don’t know where the body is. In a real avalanche, the snow is compacted and turns to ice. The search and rescue crew needed a chain saw to get Jake’s body out of the ice.
The avalanche danger on Granite Mountain is permanently extreme. The entire face is an avalanche chute and there are no trees because of that. The avalanche forecast for the day Jake died was “moderate”. That’s about as low as it ever gets in the winter. The forecast was a mistake. They later changed it to extreme. Backcountry skiers should not trust the forecasts.
Ski movies often show pictures of skiers skiing out of avalanches. These are dangerously misleading. Those skiers are just in minor snow slides or at the very edge of a slide. They are extremely lucky. Jake could ski any mountain but when the entire mountain is moving underneath you there is nothing for your skies to ski against.
There is just too much information out there and too many product advertisements that imply backcountry skiing is safe. It’s not.
Too many young men have trouble fully comprehending the dangers of backcountry skiing and there is just too much information out there that suggests it is safe.