Studying avalanche trends is difficult. Detailed statistics usually only focus on avalanches with fatalities. Nobody knows how many skiers and snowmobilers go into the snowy hinterland each season, so it is impossible to know the number of accidents. Avalanche researchers rely on voluntary information, and the data sets are small.
But that doesn’t stop avalanche scientists from spotting trends that could help backcountry travelers more confidently spot risks when navigating avalanche terrain.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters Ethan Greene and Spencer Logan released a report this week examining the level of avalanche training and backcountry experience of 126 people who were involved in 88 avalanches last year. They also looked at the changes in accidents after the pandemic closed resorts in mid-March and backcountry usage exploded, which is widely expected to recur this winter as resorts grapple with limited crowds.
The report expands on CAIC’s official reports last season that covered injuries, deaths and damage. Last season, the CAIC officially registered 26 skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and hikers who were involved in avalanches. That number includes three snowboarders who were hit by an entry slide at the Steamboat ski resort in December and two very experienced snowboarders who triggered an avalanche that did not harm anyone, but destroyed avalanche defense devices over the Eisenhower Tunnel, prompting a prosecutor to file a criminal complaint for the first time reimburse.
A total of seven people were buried in these avalanches and six were killed.
After the resorts closed on March 14, the proportion of incidents involving highly experienced backcountry travelers – which Greene and Logan described as “advanced” – increased compared to incidents involving beginners and advanced skiers, said Greene, the center’s longtime director .
“These are small numbers, but that would suggest that after the shutdown, more people with advanced experience and avalanche training became involved in accidents, and that the increase in accidents was not because more novices got into trouble,” he said.
The Avalanche Center, a program run by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, has 20 researchers and investigators across the state. These researchers speak to anyone involved in a fatal accident and in recent years have begun interviewing skiers and snowmobilers who have been caught, carried, or buried in slides.
A picture of the ridge and east facing terrain on Mount Emmons where ski guide Dan Escalante of Crested Butte was killed in an avalanche. The wet slab avalanche broke out on the densely wooded slope in the lower part of the picture. The blue circle indicates the approximate location where Escalante was captured and the star where it came to rest. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.)
In addition to determining avalanche training through face-to-face interviews, Greene and Logan developed a system based on multiple research models to rank avalanche training experience using indirect evidence such as observer interview reports and second-hand descriptions.
For their closer examination, Green and Logan identified 126 people who were involved in 86 avalanches last season. These 126 include:
- 88 people trapped and carried in moving slides
- Six people killed
- Eight people who triggered avalanches but were not caught
- 30 people not touched by snow movements
- 76 males and 13 females
- 86 were backcountry tourers
- 13 were motorized travelers
Greene and Logan grouped the incidents according to the months before the ski resorts closed on March 14 and the weeks after when hinterland travel increased. From late November to mid-February, the CAIC recorded 16 people who were involved in 11 avalanches with six burials and four deaths. In the six weeks or so after the ski areas closed, the center recorded ten people involved in nine avalanches that killed two people.
A photo of the fatal avalanche on April 16, 2020 near Silverthorne. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
The study is one of the first attempts to examine statistics from not only the small number of accidents with fatalities or injuries, but all incidents, including avalanches, in which no one was recorded or injured.
“The fatal accidents don’t tell the full story,” Greene said. “We wanted to dig a little deeper to see if we could find something that could help us understand this better.”
One reason for the study is the emerging boom in hinterland travel this winter, which is expected to be reflected last spring when resorts closed due to the pandemic and the number of incidents increased.
This season, as resorts struggle with limited visitor numbers and backcountry equipment retailers and manufacturers report record sales, more skiers, snowboarders and motorized users are expected to flood the backcountry.
That has educators and search and rescue teams on their toes. An inter-agency awareness campaign is underway in Colorado to encourage backcountry travelers to learn avalanche awareness programs and more formalized training, with many resources available online this winter.
And according to the Greene and Logan study, it may not be the newcomers behind a possible spike in avalanche accidents this season. Their research refutes the assumption that beginners who flood the hinterland are more dangerous than more experienced travelers who advance further into dangerous terrain in times of greater danger.
Greene and Logan found that most of the people who had been involved in avalanches last season were intermediate or advanced. This reflects previous research showing that more experienced and educated backcountry travelers spend more time in avalanche terrain and tend to go into the backcountry when avalanche risk is increased.
What worries Greene is that a growing percentage of experienced travelers appear to trigger avalanches when the danger rises to level 3 or “significant”.
Almost half of all US avalanche deaths occur when the danger rating is “significant”. Most Colorado occur when the hazard level is Level 2 or “Moderate” or “Major”.
Greene and Logan found that a greater proportion of the incidents that occurred last season with the “major” hazard rating occurred in the weeks after the resorts closed in mid-March, suggesting that backcountry travelers may experience dangerous times accepted higher avalanche exposure.
And these travelers were quite educated. Almost 40% of those caught in an avalanche last season had attended a formal level 1 avalanche course. Around 70% had intermediate or advanced training in avalanches.
What started out as a small slippery slope of a few inches of fresh snow turned into a weak layer and eventually combed the ground in the Avalanche on 25th (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
The proportion of incidents following the resorts closure due to the pandemic is worrying, Greene said.
“We saw a sharp increase in post-pandemic accidents in ‘major’ and when you look at the total number of ‘significant’ days it was more dramatic than I expected,” he said.
The CAIC aims to help backcountry travelers of all levels. While there is an increasing and widespread focus on training newbies to the backcountry this season, Greene wants to make sure its predictions and reports educate more seasoned backcountry travelers as well.
“This stuff is useful for everyone,” he said.
So what to do Do further research and issue reports, Greene said. Encourage all backcountry travelers to check the forecast before each trip and promote a better understanding of the avalanche hazard scale, which Green described as a “challenging communication tool”.
The rating scale is beneficial as it is used all over the world. And it can be hard to understand because it measures and classifies the risks of two different things: the likelihood of an avalanche being triggered and the places where avalanches are more likely.
“How likely are you to find a place to trip, and how likely are you to trip it when you find that place,” Greene said. “We see a lot of accidents in ‘Moderate’ and that’s because it’s often difficult to find a seat, but when it does, it’s pretty easy to trigger that slide.”
Halsted Morris, President of the American Avalanche Association, would like to take a closer look at the skills of skiing and snowmobiling in addition to avalanche training and experience. People with more experience in avalanche terrain tend to be better skiers and want to explore more challenging terrain.
“We keep arguing with the idea that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that’s not entirely true, I think,” says Morris, a longtime avalanche educator. “If that were true, we wouldn’t have so many experienced and competent people who would get into trouble. We would get people into trouble without education. “
The American Avalanche Association, like most other avalanche education groups, encourages newcomers to the backcountry to attend an avalanche course or an awareness clinic. Not only that, but think about first aid, surviving an exposed night in the mountains, and your ability to haul an injured buddy out of the snowy wilderness, Morris said.
“Those skills come from experience, and I think guides are the people new people should contact,” said Morris. “It’s not that you want to hire a guide to do some skiing. They hire a guide to learn a number of important skills. “
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