Are you a ski lawyer wondering how to best protect your clients from personal injury, death, or an embarrassing charge of failure to observe ski hazard warnings? Last time we helped ski resort owners use environmental law to their advantage against creditors; in this article, we advise those who want to protect themselves against mother nature herself.

Over the weekend, an avalanche in Washington swept away at least four backcountry skiers, killing three. Professional skier Elyse Saugstad credited her safety equipment with her survival. While the article accurately describes it as an “airbag from her backpack,” it deserves a closer look. It’s essentially a snow floatation device, allowing the wearer to stay near the surface of the avalanche to better reach oxygen. It’s a long way from the Q’s invention in The World Is Not Enough, which was patented decades ago – see patent number 4,943,252, describing how the user must pull the inflation tab and immediately assume a crouched position while the ball envelops her. In a real avalanche, it would take incredible coordination and strength to safely use such an avalanche ball (and might also require ski removal) – watch this harrowing, first person perspective to see how quickly one must react. Even with multiple friends watching, a lost glove to help locate him, and an oxygen system, the skier was unable to fully breathe under the snow, and unable to move to dig himself out or reach oxygen.

Fortunately, there are a number of devices to assist in an avalanche rescue system. Victims can arm themselves with oxygen systems, locator reflectors, and inflation devices, while rescuers can use locator beacons, probes, shovels, and dogs. The safest option by far is to ski in bounds, where avalanche risks are actively patrolled via Howitzer artillery or M60 tank. What does the future of avalanche control foretell? While artillery and tanks are excellent for current avalanche control needs, legal scholars recommend increased use of Apache helicopters as well.

– Andrew Ralls

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5 Responses to Your JETLaw Guide to Avalanche Safety

  1. Stephen Josey says:

    I’d be interested to know what kind of liability ski areas have for skiers who stray off the marked paths. I know that ski areas go to great lengths to prevent avalanche danger by performing controlled avalanches to move dangerous snow packs. Are they responsible for the surrounding parts of the mountain though which are not open to the public?

  2. Susan Reilly says:

    Great Post! I wonder how the increased use of Apache helicopters will influence the future of ski-related personal injury law. It could be a whole new source of liability for ski resorts – Apaches are notoriously risky to operate around mountains:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIJMYyZkOKI

  3. Susan says:

    Great Post! I wonder how the increased use of Apache helicopters will influence the future of ski-related personal injury law. It could be a whole new source of liability for ski resorts – Apaches are notoriously risky to operate around mountains: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIJMYyZkOKI

  4. Ian says:

    Great article Andrew, which deftly blends humor and information content. The “ABS” backpack sounds intriguing, but as you point out, it appears designed to give the trapped victim more “breathing room” from which to hopefully be rescued, rather than freeing him or her from the throes of danger. In addition to your suggestions for alternative safety devices, I recommend a gps tracking beacon if you have $20-$400 dollars to spare. See http://www.firstplaceparts.com/snowmobile-avalanche-beacons.html for more information.