A Goal of Zero: The Avalanche Industry Looks To Change

Imagine if there were zero avalanche deaths each year in the United States—on average, that would mean 28 lives saved. A group of avalanche safety professionals is making bold attempts to drastically reduce avalanche fatalities in this country and to get there, they’re looking in an unlikely place: a Swedish automobile law from the 1990s.

In 1997, the Swedish Parliament approved a law called Vision Zero, which called for a complete shift in road planning, driver behavior, law enforcement and car manufacturing with the hopes of reaching zero automobile deaths by 2020. Shockingly, the plan is working.

Just 264 people died in Sweden in car accidents in 2013, a record low for the country, one of the lowest rates per capita in the world and down from more than 1,000 in the 1960s because of this all-in approach. And while the annual average of 28 avalanche deaths isn’t a huge number compared to automobile deaths (which total 33,000 each year in this country), it’s large given the population size of backcountry users.


[Photo] Scientif38

So in September 2012, Dale Atkins, then president of the American Avalanche Association, stood in front of a room of avalanche professionals at the International Snow Science Workshop in Anchorage, Alaska and proposed that the same principles of Sweden’s Vision Zero be applied to avalanche fatalities. “The traditional approach to road safety and the avalanche world, is, ‘What can we do?’” Atkins said in front of the crowd. “Vision Zero is a step beyond that. Instead, it’s asking, ‘What else can we do?’”

In his talk, Atkins suggested that the industry change its conventional thinking about avalanche deaths—that they’re typically a result of the skier or rider’s decision making—and instead commit to changing the entire system. His proposal required a shared responsibility among forecasters, gear manufacturers, land managers, ski resorts, rescuers, educators and, of course, the backcountry users themselves.

His radical idea received mixed reviews. Some in the audience that day said zero deaths would never be possible, that it was a completely unrealistic goal. Atkins says that’s missing the point. “Some people see it as totally impossible, that it’s not worth doing,” he says now. “But this is a vision, a mindset—it’s not just a hard number.”

The idea gained traction, but slowly. In January 2013, Tom Murphy, Operations Director for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), gave a minimally attended talk at the annual SnowSports Industries of America trade show in Denver. He presented what he called Project Zero—modeled after Sweden’s plan and inspired by Atkins’s talk—which aimed to cut avalanche deaths in the U.S. to zero by 2025. Now, Murphy says their goal is just to drastically reduce the number of deaths. Zero is likely an unattainable number, he admits.

“We want to create a new normal,” Murphy says. “Currently the thinking is, ‘I have my beacon, shovel, probe. Let’s go.’ We need people to be thinking, ‘I have my gear, what’s the avalanche problem today and how do we avoid it?’ That will require a systemic change. And all of the stakeholders—the users, enforcers, rescuers, designers—will need to work together to promote it.”

Change this profound doesn’t come quickly. Or cheaply. The original budget for the first two phases of Project Zero was slated at $91,000. A year into the project, there was little momentum and basically no funding. “We have an excellent foundation, but we’ve depleted what money we have,” Murphy says. “The next step is to get the industry more involved financially. Right now, it’s one of those grassroots projects that doesn’t have money or support it needs.”

To create a paradigm shift, you have to take a first step. So in the winter of 2014, AIARE hired a researcher to conduct focus groups on backcountry users around the country to analyze their decision-making process. The findings of those studies? “Information does not lead to action. Humans are not rational and most of the decisions backcountry users are making are emotional,” says Randi Kruse, the research consultant who conducted the study. “Much of the education gets lost, so we need to figure out a way to simplify the message and change the new social norm.”

With research findings suggesting that skiers and riders were listening to their peers more than educators or forecasters, AIARE launched an experimental social media campaign last winter, in which people shared their backcountry protocol through a video contest called Know the Snow. Only around 40 people submitted videos, and Murphy admits the contest needed more large-scale exposure to make a significant impact. “Now we need to work on getting these videos out there to the audience at large,” Murphy says.

They also need to work on getting industry stakeholders on board, raising more money and creating a unified message that everyone from backcountry equipment manufacturers to resort marketing staffs can get behind. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is the fastest growing sector in the snowsports, and while manufacturers say that growth is great for business, they also need to expand the market responsibly.

“A lot of backcountry gear sales are happening over the Internet, which means you don’t get the education you would if you walked into a store,” says Bruce Edgerly, the vice president of marketing for gear-maker Backcountry Access, a partner of Project Zero. “Right now, everyone from ski companies to avalanche forecasters have their own message and none of them really match. The idea is if everyone used the same terminology, maybe the message would get through cleaner and more efficiently.”

Edgerly says Project Zero may be the solution they’ve been looking for. “If our goal is zero growth in avalanche fatalities, that’s an achievable one,” he says. “If backcountry use continues to grow but fatalities do not, that would be a good thing.”

Project Zero will continue to evolve this winter and beyond. Its end goal is perhaps less important than the changes the initiative makes along the way. “Are we ever going to get to zero fatalities?” Atkins asks. “Probably not, but we can make big progress toward that.”

Progress, Atkins admits, takes time. “It’s going to be a long process,” he says. “This isn’t something you can knock out in a season.”

This story first appeared in the October 2014 issue. To see a list of avalanche courses and AIARE providers in your area, click here.


  1. GeorgIana carr says:

    Great article—–hats off to Tom and Aiare for pushing The concept of Zero deaths…..hoping and praying that it happens sooner than later….Too many, too young, gone too soon.
    Georgiana carr
    International avalanche nestegg (ianfund.org)

    • Hoping and praying are the same thing. As for the concept of praying, if a deity has anything to do with it then we might as well just pray and completely disregard articles like this.

  2. Powder_hound says:

    “Currently the thinking is, ‘I have my beacon, shovel, probe. Let’s go.”

    Really?? Is that the majorities Mind set? I have a hard time believing it. Perhaps you could expect that from a room full of warren miller fans, but actual backcountry users? I’m not sure exactly the lens through which Mr. Murphy is making his assessment. I completely disagree with his status on “current thinking”. No disrespect intended.

    • Actually, that’s what a lot of normal consumers think. Having a shovel, probe and trans provides people with what they perceive to be some extra level of protection, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. Many kits are perceived with the tagline of “be safer in the backcountry”, which is entirely incorrect. You can “completely disagree” all you like, but from working in both ski-retail and ski-resorts I can assure you that people assume a level of safety is acquired when they have this kit.

  3. http://www.avatech.com/

    Crowdsourcing snowpack information. This is what can change the game.

    Now just waiting for economies of scale to bring the price down to a level suitable for mass market.

  4. A most welcome initiative.
    One party I think that is essential to any success in changing the mindset of backcountry skiers/riders is the movie industry.

    Every time I see a a film or a teaser of a top freerider ride a steep slope and trigger a slide i get mad. That is xxx hours of avalanche avoidance education nullified in a second. Most often preceded by a heli ride to the top, no reference to any avalanche safety proceedings which surely were performed.

    Because that is where young and older skiers/riders build their emotions, attitudes which affect their behavior much more than any avy lecture they have participated in.

  5. Let me summarize this article.

    Someone is blowing money at a serious problem without an plan on fixing the problem.

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