Although the number of avalanche fatalities in the United States in the 1980’s was approximately 15 annually, that number has doubled, on average, in the last five years. More people are now killed on public land by avalanches, avalanche researchers report, than by any other natural event, including lightning, fires or tornados.
Last year, the Forest Service National Avalanche Center says, 30 people were killed in avalanches in the United States and another 28 died in Canada. Half were backcountry skiers or snowboarders, most of the rest were on snowmobiles.
Sidecountry fatalities posed to set record
So far this year, according to www.avalanche.org, there have been 32 USA fatalities due to avalanches, and an additional 14 Canadian fatalities. Five avalanche deaths have occurred in Colorado so far this season .
Of the 46 deaths recorded by avalanche researchers in North America this season, almost a fifth were in resort side-country, the public lands easily accessed just beyond a ski resort boundary. Historically, out-of-bounds or sidecountry deaths in the U.S. only accounted for 6 percent to 9 percent of the country’s avalanche fatalities.
The increase in sidecountry fatalities merely reflects the increased number of outdoor enthusiasts venturing beyond the well-controlled conditions within the ski area boundaries. Advances in ski equipment enable less-experienced riders to venture into deeper, steeper snow. Desire for the extreme conditions is fueled by films and YouTube videos featuring incredible stunts on the side of near-vertical slopes.
And this year, the huge snowfall followed by high-wind storms has resulted in an unusual snowpack. Several avalanche-generating layers appear lurking as deep as 10 feet below the soft powder on the surface.
The only other time the out-of-bounds death rate climbed as high as this year was in 1987, when three died in two February slides outside Telluride ski area and three died in a single February avalanche beyond the rope of Breckenridge ski area.
The U.S. Forest Service in Colorado responded by reviewing its ski resort backcountry access policy, which until then consisted of small openings in resort boundary ropes. Local law enforcement and resort operators in Summit County urged the Forest Service to close public land along resort boundaries, but the general public advocated continued access. The Forest Service chose continued access but also created specific and well-signed backcountry access points designed to prevent the unaware skier from wandering out of bounds.
According to the Utah Avalanche Center almost all avalanche accidents occur to recreationists who are very skilled at their sport. Despite this expertise, their avalanche skills usually lag far behind their sport skills. In 90 percent of all avalanche accidents, the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggers the slide. Avalanches are the only natural hazard commonly triggered by the victim.
For daily updates on Colorado conditions during avalanche season, sign up with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.