As snowpack grows, number of avalanche deaths drop

Record to near-record snowfall continues to hit the mountains from California to Colorado, but avalanche deaths have experienced a significant drop. Is all that snow actually making the backcountry safer? SNEWS checks it out.

By the end of March 2011, 15 people had died as a result of avalanches during the 2010/2011 ski season across the U.S. Nearly twice that many people (29) died as a result of avalanches by the end of March 2010--a season in which there were 36 avalanche fatalities. And over the past decade, the annual average avalanche mortality rate in America has stood at 25 deaths.

Of course there is still plenty of time for backcountry skiers, snowmobilers and climbers to get into serious trouble this spring, especially as this season’s massive snowfall starts to melt off. But with record or near-record snow across so much of the country, wouldn’t it make sense that there would also be a corresponding rise in lethal avy incidents?

“I can only speak for Southwestern Montana, but the steady snowfall this season has actually kept the weak layers from forming in the snowpack,” said Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. “I know that seems counter-intuitive, but with a lot of regular snowfall those weak layers don’t have a chance to set-up.”

Chabot said that while the avalanche danger has certainly spiked during and immediately after a storm, with the regularity of snow this year, “The danger level comes down rapidly after the snow stops.” He said, “It’s not like last year, where the danger spiked and just never came down, and all season there was that sensitive weak layer to worry about.”

The steady storms have actually created more cohesion and consolidation in the snowpack, while the lack of extended high pressure has meant there is less opportunity for the snow to facet or rot. It’s that steady mix of snowfall followed by days of bluebird beauty that make Colorado such a Mecca for skiers, and also one of the most consistently dangerous regions for avalanche in the U.S.

“If you are looking at avalanche fatalities across the country, then the numbers are down. But in Colorado we’re right at our average,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Greene said Colorado averages 5.25 avalanche fatalities a year, and that five deaths from December to February—“which really are the most dangerous months statistically”--put the state right at the annual mark.

“We have had avalanche fatalities in every month of the year in this state at some point, so you can never consider yourself completely safe. And Colorado is a big enough place that throughout the winter we are always having an avalanche issue someplace,” Greene said. “So it would be very hard to draw a generalization that there is a safer snowpack this season across a region as large as the Rocky Mountain West.”

In California, however, which typically benefits from more stable conditions because of a more moisture-laden maritime snowpack, record snowfall in the Tahoe region has yet to result in a single avalanche death. And even in Utah, where the Wasatch has been experiencing snorkel-level snowfall all winter, the two avalanche fatalities which have occurred were in ranges which have received the least amount of snowfall to date--the Uintas, and the Manti La-Sal National Forest.

Shallower snowpacks in those regions have resulted in a higher level of risk due to avalanche. And according to reports regarding the accident on Saturday, March 26, 2011, in which Petzl employee Garrett Smith was caught by an avalanche and later died of his injuries, the group was actually attempting to exit the terrain after conducting a slope assessment. “This accident really comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” read the comments in the avalanche forecaster’s report, which also stated that Smith died despite “a textbook rescue” by the search group.

Unfortunately, as has been the case with the high rate of NARSID incidents this year, which unlike the drop in avalanche fatalities seem to have spiked as a direct result of the increased snowfall, death may still be the best way to effectively advertise the backcountry risk--especially during a season when a more forgiving snowpack may be playing a much bigger role than good decision making in reducing the number of incidents.

“Usually after somebody gets killed, you rush around and try to teach as many avalanche classes as you can, because you have the bully pulpit and a very attentive audience,” said Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. “It’s the same way that everyone drives their car too fast but then tend to slow down when they see an accident. When you have a big incident that occurs and people see it on TV, it wakes them up a little bit.”

While avalanche forecasters are certainly glad to see the reduced number of fatalities, they also hope that the lower rate of incidents isn’t creating a false sense of security for next season--or even later this spring--when changing weather patterns inevitably create a completely different kind of snowpack.

“It basically creates a complacency trap for the future,” said avalanche researcher Ian McCammon. “When people go out they tend to remember the good years, and probably don’t pay attention to how much conditions have changed. They’re always changing, but you don’t know it. I think no matter how many times you have skied a slope, you should always act like it is the first time you have ever seen it. The accidents stay pretty much the same, it’s the names each time that are different.”

--Peter Kray

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