Winter Sports

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Snow Sports Alert: An Avalanche of Ill-Advised Selfies in Backcountry Conditions

18 Oct, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

First it was ‘bear selfies’ that caused so much danger in a Colorado Park that the area had to be closed to everyone (including those with enough sense to stay away from the wildlife.) Now, the rise of those trying to broadcast their backcountry snow exploits on social media has led to an increased number of avalanche deaths. And while winter athletes are well-versed in the dangers, family and friends traveling with them might not be. And sports event directors are being warned to make sure everyone is aware of the risks.

An article in the Denver Post notes that during the 2015-2016 ski season, 30 people died in avalanches in the U.S., up from 11 in the 2014-2015 season, according to data from Avalanche.org. Although it’s impossible to say whether competition fueled by social media played a role in this increase, anecdotal evidence suggests that more skiers are trekking further out to find pristine mountainsides, without necessarily learning about avalanche safety measures, in part out of a desire to impress friends with videos or selfies posted online.

The prime culprits, say those who know, are those who want to prove to their friends they have gone out of bounds. In fact, among the 270 Colorado deaths since 1950, the vast majority were men with a mean age of 29 — an age at which social media use is peaking.

The use of smartphones, GoPro cameras and other tools has been seen as a factor in visitors’ abilities to take risks.

“Social media is definitely playing a role in their decision-making,” said Emery Rheam, a 16-year-old from Jackson, Wyoming, who has surveyed teenage skiers about their perspectives on avalanche safety. “But the terrain they are in, that they can reach and ski, it outmatches their education.”

Many individuals have watched backcountry ski videos on YouTube, and many more play extreme sports games on the computer that allow them to put themselves in the place of the athlete. Unfortunately, the Ski Patrol will note, you can’t hit the reset button when an actual avalanche comes. So experts are also asking big brands involved in outdoor sports, like Red Bull, to include avalanche safety messages in their social media content alongside videos of extreme skiing feats.

In the meantime, event directors are being advised to make sure all materials contain advisories.

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