Processing the Silverton Avalanche School Tragedy

Tragedy strikes

Yesterday I read a tragic news story that should have surprised me, but didn’t. A man died in an avalanche in Colorado. What was unique about his case is that he was caught in the slide while taking an avalanche safety course (AST – 2). That means he was accompanied by a guide and was in the backcountry for the express purpose of learning how to avoid situations like the one that took his life.

As of January 5th, Peter Marshall was the first person in 2019 to succumb to injuries sustained from being caught in an avalanche within the US–January 4th we had our first casualty in Canada.  

I’m not sharing this news story to denigrate the actions of the victim or Silverton Avalanche School. In fact the opposite. As the US News reports, “this is the avalanche school’s first death since its founding in 1964.” Marshall himself was spending his free time and money in pursuit of the skills and education needed to keep his friends safe while skiing in the backcountry. Rather, the point is that even in the hands of the most capable professionals the dangers of the backcountry still persist. No one is immune to making mistakes, not even the professionals. And this is why this story doesn’t come as a surprise; nature doesn’t discriminate and when an error is made the consequences can be dire.

The silver lining

The silver lining is that the statistics are trending toward fewer avalanche related fatalities in the backcountry annually. Despite the added traffic, the stats of fatalities due to avalanches are staying steady and even decreasing. The CBC published a story in 2016 reporting about just that.

This positive trend is the result of a huge push on behalf of avalanche experts like those at Silverton Avalanche School to educate people before they venture into the backcountry unsupervised. Organizations like the Avalanche Canada, ACMG, AMGA, Know Before You Go, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and Silverton Avalanche School (to name a few) are dedicated to educating the public before recommending people trek into the backcountry. And the curriculum is working.

The take away

Stories like Peter Marshall’s seem more tragic due to the sad irony involved. Dying in an avalanche while learning how to avoid them carry’s with it some rhetorical weight. Because of this it is easier to focus on the tragedy. However, the full story is that six skiers were caught in the slide. Five people were rescued and one person perished.

Death is a very real part of mountain culture and learning from tragedy is a tradition that has been around since people started climbing mountains. Due to their proximity to risk it is often the guides themselves that pass down these stories.

Mountain guides are amazing people. Not only does their profession put them in an incredibly vulnerable position, like this one, but they go on to share the intimate details of their tragedies. All in the hopes of keeping all of us safer the next time we venture into the backcountry.   

As we take time to reflect on Peter Marshall’s life and the tragedy that befell him, here are a few books that may help you process this tragedy. These volumes also celebrate our amazing mountain culture and the courage of the professionals who educate us and put themselves on the line for us everyday.

1. Buried

by Ken Wylie

Likely the most relevant book here with regard to the recent tragedy. Ken Wylie, an ACMG ski guide, opens up about an incident in which thirteen people were caught and buried in an avalanche under his watch. This story took incredible courage to tell and is an invaluable resource to anyone that backcountry skis.

2. Deep Survival

By Laurence Gonzales

“Gonzales has been studying accidents and their roots in human behavior for more than thirty-five years. Deep survival is the culmination of that research.” – quoted from the fly leaf.

3. Into Thin Air

by Jon Krakauer

A perennial classic that explores the tragic events that befell two professional mountain guiding operations on Everest. Krakauer himself was on the expedition and provides us with an intimate first hand account of the events of May 10th, 1996. Eight climbers perished in their attempt to summit the highest peak on earth.

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