This editorial first appeared in the Spokesman-Review in Spokane:
A major avalanche swept down Wardner Peak less than an hour after Idaho’s Silver Mountain Resort opened Jan. 7, claiming the lives of three skiers and sending rescuers scurrying to dig out five others buried beneath the snow. As resort officials and authorities review what happened, there should be open discussion of what can be done to reduce the risk of a similar tragedy.
With 13 inches of fresh snow on the ground and more falling, skiers were lined up early at the resort just south of Kellogg, Idaho, and about 70 miles east of Spokane. Some skiers, however, expressed concern that the deep, wet snow was prime for an avalanche.
Resort crews were heard setting off explosives around Wardner Peak, a standard measure in avalanche control. It wasn’t enough. At about 11 a.m., snow swept down two inbound ski runs. Rescuers later describe the avalanche as a size 4 on a 1-to-5 scale, with 5 the largest. The Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office said it received reports of up to three avalanches on the mountain Tuesday.
The bodies of two friends, 58-year-old Carl Humphreys of Liberty Lake and 48-year-old Scott Parsons of Spokane Valley, were recovered Tuesday. The body of Minneapolis neurosurgeon Dr. Molly Hubbard was found by a search party on Thursday.
The quick work of rescuers undoubtedly saved lives. They were helped by a skier who was only partially buried and was freed swiftly enough to point to where other skiers around her were when the avalanche hit.
People coming off the mountain Tuesday afternoon said they weren’t aware an avalanche warning had been issued for the region earlier that morning by the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center. Although the warning was for higher elevations, it advised against travel in the avalanche terrain, citing high risk from “rapid loading with a new snow and wind slabs over the buried persistent weak layers.”
In the days ahead, the skiing community would benefit from a thorough appraisal of how to prevent a recurrence. Silver Mountain Resort must be forthcoming about why it allowed skiers on the mountain under those circumstances. There needs to be transparency about that fatal decision so that there can be a full discussion about policies and procedures during future high-risk times.
Education, too, must be improved. Are skiers sufficiently educated about avalanche conditions? Do they know how to prepare themselves? Resorts and outfitters can help ensure that the answer is yes.
If there’s a clear lesson from this week’s events, it’s one offered up by search volunteer Hank Lunsford, who said all skiers should wear an avalanche beacon that can lead rescuers to their location. “I’m buying one today,” he said.
Avid skiers aren’t likely to be easily dissuaded from hitting the slopes on days when there’s a bounty of fresh snow. But the tragedy on Silver Mountain is a reminder of the high risks involved — and the importance of preparing for what you hope never happens.