Roger Cox: The tragic death of an experienced skier at Glencoe means a re-write and a re-think

A rescue helicopter over the Cairngorms on a mountain resuce mission. Picture: PA
A rescue helicopter over the Cairngorms on a mountain resuce mission. Picture: PA
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DON’T get me wrong, I love writing this column, but the Four seasons slot does have its downsides and chief among them is the fact that, due to long magazine lead-times, I have to write it almost two full weeks before you get to read it.

As such, it is vulnerable to being overtaken by events. The column I’d originally written for today’s paper would have jarred so horribly with the tragic news from Glencoe Mountain last weekend – when Clackmananshire skier Daniel Maddox was killed in an avalanche while skiing just outside the resort boundary – that I’ve been given special dispensation to do a last-minute re-write.

Why draw attention to the fact that this is a re-write? Because I think some of the false assumptions I made in my original column are the kind of false assumptions that are commonly made throughout the skiing and snowboarding world, and I think that by going over what I originally wrote I might be able to shed a little light on the way backcountry skiers and snowboarders (myself included) think and behave.

My original column was a reflection on a recent spate of so-called “sidecountry” deaths at ski resorts across North America – incidents in which skiers and boarders have been killed while seeking out fresh snow just outside the safety of the ski resort boundary. I expressed concern that similar incidents could occur here in Scotland.

In retrospect, the most serious error I made in the piece was to draw a distinction between the risks faced by experienced skiers carrying all the correct avalanche rescue kit – experienced skiers like Mr Maddox – and less experienced skiers.

“I don’t worry so much about experienced skiers,” I wrote. “When they hop over a ski resort boundary rope they are properly prepared. But I worry that there are other, less clued-up skiers and boarders out there who, inspired by their example, will leave the pistes and follow them out of bounds. Next time you see that familiar line of little black dots crawling up to the top of Cairn Gorm [to ski out of bounds], see if you can spot how many are wearing backpacks. In my experience, it’s usually about 50 per cent. The ones without will have nowhere to put their avalanche probe, nowhere to keep a collapsible avvie shovel. If they don’t have a shovel or probe, they probably won’t be wearing a transceiver either, so if they get buried, that’s that – game over.”

How naive this all sounds now, in the light of last weekend’s events. Note my fixation with having the correct rescue kit and knowing how to use it. Mr Maddox was an experienced skier, yet he was buried under 13ft of avalanche debris.

Like most backcountry skiers, I always ski with the holy trinity of transceiver, shovel and probe, and I’ve had various refresher courses on how to use them over the years. I know what to do with all my shiny gear, then, but how good am I at predicting whether an avalanche is actually going to happen on the slope I’m about to ride? Honestly? Not so hot. And I suspect there might be many others out there who, like me, focus more on what to do in the event of an avalanche having happened and less on how to avoid getting caught up in an avalanche in the first place. This, I think, needs to change.

I should say at this point that I am in no way trying to suggest that Mr Maddox failed to understand the danger he was in. The avalanche risk posted by the Sportscotland Avalanche Information Service on the day he died was “considerable” or three out of five. Professional backcountry guiding companies routinely take clients into the hills when the risk is at this level. But I do think what happened at Glencoe should serve as a serious wake-up call to anyone who, like me, finds comfort in the fact that if an avalanche occurs, they’ll be equipped to deal with it. It’s great that so many backcountry skiers are now trained to locate and rescue avalanche victims. But if one good thing is to come out of Daniel Maddox’s death, I think the focus in the way we talk about avalanches needs to shift emphatically away from rescue, and towards avoidance.