Russ Costa: Don’t die in an avalanche while surviving coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) With all the resorts closed, skiers are taking advantage of new snowfall by turning to "uphill skiing," as crowds come and go along the Summer Road at Alta Ski Resort on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. So far Alta has allowed uphill traffic on some of its terrain but closed most areas on Wednesday for avalanche control. There has also has been a run on people buying backcountry gear, and skins for skis are nearly impossible to find.

Don’t mistake outdoor recreation for guaranteed social distancing. Because if anything goes wrong you will be in close contact with your partners, nearby recreational parties, search and rescue volunteers, emergency medical personnel, and likely others. Although not avalanche-related, Saturday’s involved rescue in Beartrap Fork of Big Cottonwood Canyon provides the most recent evidence for this point.

Over 40 human-triggered avalanches were reported to the Utah Avalanche Center last weekend, with six people being caught and carried by snow slides in three separate accidents east of Salt Lake City. Another three individuals were caught, with two being carried, by avalanches in the Ogden area mountains. Included in this set was a harrowing incident that occurred inside the boundaries of Snowbasin ski area which, like most ski areas nationwide, has suspended operations due to the pandemic.

These “free lessons” thankfully came without loss of life and, miraculously, with minimal injuries. But the community at large needs to learn a larger lesson from this recent storm cycle and our behavior through it: we are taking too many risks at a time when the medical system is already being pushed to – or beyond – its capacity by the pandemic.

The suspension of operations at local ski areas have left many Utahns searching for ways to recreate in the mountains. With considerable snow depth and recent spring storms, skiers are drawn into avalanche-prone areas to play and exercise in the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Many who are not accustomed to the protocols of travel in avalanche terrain — and even some who are — seek these opportunities at our closed local ski areas which are, with some exceptions, generally allowing uphill travel during their closures.

This is understandable behavior, because ski areas house terrain that is familiar. There, with just a little bit of uphill walking, users can find ski runs that they have descended dozens or even hundreds of times without incident, avalanche or otherwise. The presence of this familiar terrain makes difficult decisions about where to ski and maximize both fun and safety cognitively easy.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes about the pleasure of cognitive ease and the tendency for humans to avoid its opposite, cognitive strain, in decision-making. In his influential work, engineer and experienced backcountry skier Ian McCammon showed that even highly trained ski touring parties make riskier decisions and exhibit riskier behaviors in familiar terrain than they do in unfamiliar terrain. While the familiarity of the ski area terrain may provide an illusion of safety, it is only an illusion –at least until the ski areas resume their normal avalanche control measures.

As a transplant who moved to, and stayed in, Utah largely because of recreational (and later, professional) opportunities in the mountains, I understand the desire to ski and exercise in the Wasatch. And, full disclosure: I have been backcountry skiing frequently during this pandemic. But I have changed my behavior. I am avoiding carpooling, popular trail heads (including ski area parking lots), peak days and times and large parties. Many of us have seen the large parties gathering at popular ski area parking lots and traveling uphill and downhill together during these past few weeks. This is not only a public health concern in a time of coronavirus transmission but also an avalanche safety concern where large groups have been shown to expose themselves to increased risk.

While avalanche risk for fatalities is always a concern, the risk and consequences of trauma are also now a heightened concern — when beds, medical devices, and emergency medical staff and time are already stretched too thin.

Please dial back the risk right now.

Russell E. Costa, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Honors & Neuroscience Westminster College

Russ Costa is an assistant professor of honors and neuroscience at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. His research focuses on attention and perception in the lab, and on risk taking outside of it. For the past two decades he has avidly pursued backcountry skiing and mountaineering in the Wasatch and beyond.