Officials with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, CAIC, which forecasts avalanches in Colorado – the state that leads the nation in avalanche deaths most years – say a rainy fall in the region has increased avalanche risk. The numbers are shocking; nine people have died in avalanches across the United States so far this season, compared to a total of 36 fatalities for the entire 2007-08 season. And on Monday, the bodies of seven snowmobilers were recovered, with an eighth victim remaining unfound, in British Columbia’s Elk Valley, about 550 miles east of Vancouver. The snowmobilers were killed when they were swept away by avalanches.
Just yesterday morning, an avalanche struck a lift-top restaurant at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, spilling snow through a back door but not hurting anybody. The avalanche hit at the top of the Bridger Gondola, just two days after an avalanche killed a skier at the resort.
Avalanche danger in Jackson Hole and throughout the Rockies has been extreme since a storm dumped heavy snow across the region last week. On Saturday, an avalanche killed a skier on an expert trail at Jackson resort. Ski patrollers quickly uncovered the skier from 8 feet of snow but couldn’t revive him.
Avalanche danger usually rises in spring, because of heavy, wet snows. But this year, forecasters say, snow and rain in October and again on Election Day Nov. 4 created very weak layers in the snowpack.
Colorado averages six avalanche deaths a year – the state has already experienced four this season. A suburban Denver firefighter and a teenage boy while snowmobiling Saturday were killed in an avalanche near Rocky Mountain National Park. On December 22nd, the body of a 36-year-old snowboarder missing since the previous week was found buried in avalanche debris near Mount Emmons, southwest of Aspen. The snowboarder was out alone in the backcountry on the east side of Mount Emmons
Two days later an avalanche killed two snowmobilers in northern Utah as new snowfall made the slopes increasingly unstable. The slide occurred Wednesday in the Rockies near the Utah-Idaho state line. This followed the death of skier on December 21st after an avalanche occurred inside Utah’s Snowbird resort.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Sierra Avalanche Center last Friday said the avalanche danger is moderate in backcountry areas above treeline in the central Sierra around Lake Tahoe. Its advisory came a day after an expert skier was found dead under several feet of snow at the Squaw Valley USA resort just north of Tahoe. The skier was on expert terrain with a friend during a blizzard.
The first avalanche death reported was a Colorado skier near Aspen ski area. See First Colorado Ski Death in Aspen.
Perhaps most striking is the number of inbounds avalanche deaths so far this season – three as compared to just one for all of last season. Avalanche deaths are rare inbounds at Western ski areas. The resorts routinely trigger their own slides to prevent them from occurring uncontrolled.
Much of Colorado’s mountains have been placed under “considerable” avalanche risk this week. That’s lower than “high” or the “extreme” categories, which are called rarely. CAIC warns that more people die when the risk is listed as “considerable” than when it’s listed in the higher categories.