Last Saturday here in Bend was like most of the last 40 odd days: splitter skies but quirky temperatures. A great time to test skis in the skinnier widths. Having taken my full share of firm snow turns, I would opt for the low-hanging vertical endeavor and skin up Mt. Bachelor. The shiny blue tinge crowning the volcano signals, at least for me, it’s time for ski-crampons up high. I shuffled along, and with an eventual transition to straight-up crampons below the summit, the outing was relatively uneventful. Being captain cautious, I suppose, I wore a helmet too once I encountered the firmer goods up high.
I skied down from the top under the lift, more aware of lightspeed skiers and riders than actually enjoying the turns. Such is my headspace these days in more crowded places.
Fifteen minutes later, I began my transition to skins with thoughts of leftover Thai food back at the car. The tell-tale noise of thumping rotor blades interrupted the process with one skin on: the life-flight heli circled the at-capacity parking lot.
We all know, in mountain towns, the heli is foreboding.
I thought the heli set down out of sight, in a spot where the mountain operation folks service their groomer fleet. I skinned on the perimeter road for about a minute, then stepped aside as a racing snow-machine, piloted by a ski patroller, buzzed my way. Another patroller vigorously administered chest compressions to a bundled-up victim on the trailing sled.
I never heard the helicopter depart and am unsure if it ever landed. I later learned the victim died at the mountain’s medical office.
This was the second death in two days at the mountain—which for all practical purposes is a bustling ski-metropolis. According to news reports, both victims were wearing helmets and died due to injuries suffered from impacts. As far as I know, skier to skier collisions caused neither death.
Mt. Bachelor has had its share of grim news. Since 2018, three skiers have died in tree well accidents on the slopes, one as recently as this January. However, I often think of the ski area as benign: my spidey senses are rarely on high alert there. Maybe that’s risk compensation at play—with plenty of human projectiles to avoid, there’s a big heap of folly in thinking that curated fun at a ski area isn’t without massive risk.
This is all in contrast to most days adventuring in the mountains when I have a much greater degree of situational awareness regardless of the actual risk level. Since I know backcountry skiing is a ‘risky’ activity, I think about it differently. But what exactly does that mean?
Maybe it has something to do with taking a more active role in the risk mitigation process like carrying a beacon, reading the avalanche forecast discussion, making an appropriate plan, and embarking on adventures with partners sharing similar values.
Last week’s two deaths got me thinking about perceived and actual risks. Rather than get sucked into a dark place, I mostly let my thoughts end there until a phone call on Tuesday with Alex Lee, a frequent WildSnow contributor. He asked if I had ever heard of the term “micromort” after communicating the on-piste deaths. With my cursory knowledge of French, I wondered if it had to do with death, as mort, in French, means dead. It turns out there’s a positive correlation.
Here it is straight from the wiki: “A micromort (from micro-and mortality) is a unit of risk defined as a one-in-a-million chance of death. Micromorts can be used to measure the riskiness of various day-to-day activities.”
Talk about internet wormholes: micromort goes deep. We’ll only scratch the surface here. Lee passed me a link to a Utah Avalanche Center post titled “What is the Risk of Riding in Avalanche Terrain?” Some of the data on micromorts cited in the UAC post are from Bruce Jamieson, a now-retired avalanche educator, and researcher, and Werner Munter*, a Swiss-based avalanche expert.
As a baseline, getting out of bed at the age of 20 has a micromort of 1. That means the risk for a 20-year-old getting out of bed and dying is 1:1,000,000. Good odds, get out of bed. On the other hand, climbing 8000-meter peaks is spicier. Consider a micromort of 12,000 as a fair warning.
Most of our daily activities and mountain excursions, which all involve some degree of risk, lie somewhere in between when considering micromort ratings.
Some micromort risk ratings for skiing-related activities converted to “deaths per million days are listed below, according to the UAC blog post.
-Backcountry skiing in Austria (using normal risk reduction measures)= 2
-Backcountry skiing in Canada (using normal risk reduction measures)= 4
-Centerpunching 10 slopes per day at Moderate Danger without risk reduction measures= 20
-Backcountry skiing at Considerable without risk reduction measures= 200
-Centerpunching 10 slopes/day at Considerable Danger without risk reduction measures= 300
-Centerpunching 10 slopes/day at High Danger without risk reduction measures= 500
Want to read further? Here’s another interesting discussion relating to risk, micromorts, and our cosmic well-being in the skiing universe is found here: “SKI TOURING VS THE DAILY COMMUTE: HOW RISKY IS THE BACKCOUNTRY?”
I’m not 20. I still gladly accept my increased micromort rating for waking up, sipping two, sometimes more, cups of coffee, reading the avy forecast, checking the batteries in my beacon, making appropriate decisions with my partners, and hopefully, smiling and fist-bumping at the end of our tour.
We can’t remove the risks inherent to the mountains, but we can reduce the risks, recognize the hazards, plan, adapt, and educate ourselves to the nature of risk we are exposing ourselves to. Risk is part of what makes skiing rewarding, but only if we make it back to that leftover Thai food at the end of the day.
This is also to say this: thank you, avy forecasters and mountain guides, and ski patrollers for doing what you do. And condolences to the friends and family of all those we’ve lost in the mountains, and especially to those affected by these recent accidents at Mt. Bachelor.
* Munter is perhaps most famous for the ‘Munter Method’ of calculating trip time in the backcountry.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.