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Avalanches: The Destructive (Un?)predictability of Nature 17 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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Photo from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: roof avalanche near Creede

Everything I know about avalanches, I learned from watching the Discovery Channel at age five or from reading the Colorado Avalanche Information Center‘s (CAIC)website at 23. In between Shark Week and powder forecasts, both will teach you essentially the same thing: when snow starts moving, it’s best that you’re anywhere else. Otherwise, skedaddle, or hope that your friends know how to use a beacon. Every year, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers trigger tens of avalanches in Colorado alone, and as more and more people take the backcountry, that number will only increase. And so will the deaths.

CAIC tracks and describes every avalanche reported. It makes for fascinating reading.

Take the photo above. It was late March in southern Colorado. Two guys went up to check out a summer home, maybe to clear off some snow and make sure nothing had taken up residence in the cabin that winter. They circled the house a couple times and moved onto the deck overlooking the Rio Grande. They might have admired the view. And then the roof released above them, leaving neither a chance to react. A couple thousand pounds of snow cascaded onto the front porch and snuffed them out. That was that.

Or consider the two former Loveland ski patrollers who set out on a December morning to explore some backcountry lines near their old stomping grounds. Dry Gulch extends from the backside of Loveland Basin all the way down to Highway 70, where the pair set out from a parking area on the morning of the fifth. CAIC describes the events leading up to the avalanche:

Both members of the party broke trail up the eastern or climbers left side of the north-northeast aspect slope. They had looked at a few other lines but either did not like the terrain or there were other groups in the vicinity. Once they got to treeline they moved a little further west to look at a different line around a treed ridge. This path was well scoured from wind and did not have much snow coverage. Both decided to return to the original route.

At the top both parties made a plan and reviewed potential safe spots. Subject 1 made a ski cut across the top of the path heading east, across a convex wind roll. Subject 1 stopped at an apex of their up track and turned to signal Subject 2 that it felt ok and they could descend to the pre-determined safe spot. At this pre-determined safe spot, Subject 2 stopped and turned to watch Subject 1 begin their descent a little further to skiers right of Subject 2’s line and close to the center of the path. This area had a shallower snowpack depth when compared to the further west line taken by Subject 2. As Subject 1 descended to just about even with Subject 2, Subject 2 heard a loud boom and watched the slab buckle and break into refrigerator sized blocks.

You can imagine what happens next. Skier 1 disappears down the slope while his watches, trying to escape. Then skier 2 is caught as well, tumbling down the mountain in a freight train of snow. He wakes up dazed and buried, but with has Avalung in his mouth and a little room for hand. He manages to dig himself out.  His friend, though, is nowhere to be seen or heard, so starts a search not evening known where to look. When an uphill approach fails, he heads back down and catches skier 1’s signal from the avalanche beacon, loses it, then locks on.

Altogether, finding him took maybe 10-15 minutes after skier 2 extricated himself. It was already too late. CPR failed. An off-duty emergency room physician skiing in the area tried to help without success.

Not all avalanches end in deaths, of course. Out of the 32 slides during the 09/10 Colorado season, 8 people were killed.  Last year, thousands of people headed out beyond resort boundaries to ski, ride and snowmobile and only 36 died in avalanches. Those trained for travel in the backcountry know the risks and generally carry the appropriate gear. They take hours of courses on snowpack analysis and rescue techniques. They know to avoid sketchy areas, and they follow the forecasts. Those who don’t face the same hazards with much greater uncertainty—and they die more often.

So before you head out into the backcountry this season, please take some time to learn about it. Read CAIC’s accident reports, take the courses, buy the gear. Nature’s destruction is often more predictable than you’d think, and by doing your homework and playing it safe, you can mitigate the risks.

The first line of CAIC’s report on the Dry Gulch slide reads:

A good example of a cross loaded slope.

Don’t get caught knowing less than you should. I don’t want to read about you.


Should Denver’s Big Air Be Free? 27 January 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Economics, Skiing.
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It’s not often that I find at topic at the intersection of skiing and economics. In fact, this might well be the first time. But here we are. I hope you’re as excited as I am. Anyway. As you may have seen on some network (I don’t know which one it was), over the course of the last two days Denver hosted America’s first municipal ski and snowboard Big Air competition. No US city had attempted anything like it, much less pulled in an FIS World Cup event–the kind reserved for places like Aspen or Innsbruck.

Denver, though, dumped money into the project, erecting a 106′ ramp in the middle of Civic Center Park, a downtown icon between the capitol and Denver’s city and county building. Copper Mountain provided the machines and crews to make (literally) tons of snow. Skiers and riders competed for thousands of cheering fans. Switchfoot played.

Thing was, Denver charged for it. General admission tickets for the viewing area went for $45. VIP passes, which included dinner and drinks, set visitors back up to $200. Fine, you might say, but in a front page story in the Denver Post, some folks in Denver howled about this misuse of a public space. After all, parks were public, they said. Here’s Larry Ambrose, c0-chairman of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Parks and Recreation Committee:

“It would be much better if it was free. I am not sure our parks should be venues. . . . I don’t want to say it’s a terrible idea. It’s a little silly. If it were free, it might be acceptable.”

His concern about using parks as venues holds merit. Why not use Mile High instead? But it only makes sense that a city pursuing the Olympics might demonstrate its public snowsports chops by hosting an event like the Big Air. It becomes a civic undertaking and a matter of civic pride: Denver demonstrated to America that is could plan, support and draw crowds to a ski and snowboard competition–when no one else had even tried. I suspect it will appear as a bullet point in Denver’s Olympic resume, but I’m a poor judge of those sorts of subjective things.

I know better the economics of the situation, and I know when things ought to be free. Denver’s Big Air didn’t qualify. Consider the essential argument these folks employed in advocating for a free event: public spaces should be available for free to all, parks are public spaces, and therefore the event should be open to the public, free of charge. But why should we agree with the first premise? In fact, in all fairness to Denver taxpayers, events in the city’s parks should not necessarily be free, especially when they draw visitors from other towns as this one almost assuredly did.

Consider what’s fair in this situation. While Denver residents do indeed support city parks and common spaces with their tax dollars, the money needed to host the Big Air comp went above and beyond that level support–the level generally agreeable to voters. To raise the additional money, Denver sold sponsorships and tickets to willing participants, leaving taxpayers (mostly) off the hook for the production’s expense. That is, the people and businesses who wanted to be a part of the event were the ones asked to pay for it. Sound fair? If you think not, then consider the alternative: Denver’s half-million taxpayers supporting an event that the vast majority of them would never see. That’s the alternative.

There are, of course, situations in which it makes sense for governments to provide services for their citizens without making direct charges. In economic parlance, those are called “public goods.” To qualify, the good must be non-excludable and non-rival. But that likely means nothing to you. In real english, we’re saying that the government ought to provide a good where there’s no reasonable way of excluding people from consuming the it and that when one person does consume the good, it doesn’t harm another person’s ability to do so.

Take the example of a fireworks show. You can’t really stop people from seeing fireworks, unless maybe you’re Ted Turner and you set them off in the middle of your 10,000-acre ranch. And when one person sees the show, it doesn’t really take away from another person’s experience. For a private company, those two facts equate to a certain conclusion: no way to make money. How can you charge for an event that people will still see for free anyway? Without governments, resorts and theme parks, there would be no fireworks. The world would be a sadder, though nicer-smelling, place. For the exact opposite, consider a Snickers bar: you can keep people from buying by sticking it inside a vending machine, and when I eat, there’s not a Snickers bar left for you. Too bad for you, but good for the economy.

So back to Big Air. In an economically perfect world, the government would have left the event up to a private company. It would have taken place at Ilitch’s or Mile High or some other private venue. But for the reasons discussed earlier, our civic ego demanded government, not private, action. And from there on out, Denver handled the event as the private sector would have. They sought sponsorships. They charged for tickets to provide the service, using market tools to best allocate resources. They went to Groupon. And though you may not believe me, those solutions work. They provide the greatest total benefit to the consumers and producers, in this case the city and the attendees.

So “public” is not synonymous with “free,” nor should it be. Denver’s Big Air was worth the price.

Summit County, CO: Snowboarded, left with imprints of my face 13 April 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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This is a blog post about snowboarding. It is mainly about how snowboarding makes my butt hurt. It is about how snowboarding makes my face hurt, too. Sometimes. That is to say, I took a lesson today after spending 85 days this year on skis. Yes, 85. I boast, but I can also say that 85 days on skis does not really translate into snowboarding prowess. The rugburns on my elbows prove this.

To understand the process of learning to board, imagine strapping your feet to a dingo, cinching them down and all that so that no matter where the dingo goes, you will most assuredly go as well. At first, this seems like a clever plan since dingos are frisky and lovable, but about two moments after your instructor teaches you to stand up, he lets loose something small, furry and very, very speedy. What follows is “riding.” Or for me it’s Andy’s Illustrated Guide to Snowboarding Falls Vols. I, II, and III. IV will arrive shortly, pending the recovery of my butt, knees, wrists, left pinky, and like I said, face.

But by the end of the day part of the appeal becomes clear, mainly that snowboard boots is comfy. Skiers will tell you that heat-molded liners and custom footbeds and all that make their boots tolerable. Skiers lie. When the rapture comes, those not among the elect will walk to hell in ski boots. And once there, some lesser demon wearing a fuschia onesey will force them to descend stairs for all eternity. Their suffering will know no bounds.

In all honesty, though–and I’m an honest skier–it’s a pleasure to return to knowing nothing at all about a sport, to become a snowboarding tyro if you like. And yes, I say that so you can solve a clue in next Monday’s crossword (Novice: 4 letters). Speaking of which, the next time I find an occasion for “adzes,” you can be sure to see that as well. This instance doesn’t count. At any rate, please excuse my rambling. Point is that after so many days spent on skis, nothing seemed terribly steep anymore and the fear had just about disappeared. Learning to snowboard brings all that back. The “Aacckk! Too fast! Turn?! Stop!? Tumble, tumble, tumble” progression returns. But to be learning again, there’s the fun.

Grins all around.