The center noted an increase in accidents involving experienced skiers
A pair of skiers ride up the hill in the Loveland Ski Area near Georgetown, CO on Friday, March 20, 2020. With many closings in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders are opting for upgrade equipment to continue skiing in the backcountry at ski resorts without chairlifts.
Hugh Carey / Special for the Colorado Sun.
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 accident rates. Avalanche researchers rely on information provided voluntarily, and the data sets are small.
However, this does not prevent avalanche scientists from identifying trends that could enable hinterland travelers to more safely identify 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 formation and backcountry experience of 126 people involved in 88 avalanches over the past year. They also looked at the changes in accidents after the pandemic closed resorts in mid-March and backcountry use exploded. This is expected to happen again this winter as the resorts grapple with limited crowds.
The report expands on the official reports CAIC compiled last season, which included injuries, deaths and damage. Last season, the CAIC officially registered 26 skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and hikers who were involved in avalanches. This includes three snowboarders who were caught on a slide in the Steamboat ski area in December and two very experienced snowboarders who triggered an avalanche that did not injure anyone, but destroyed avalanche protection devices over the Eisenhower tunnel and prompted a prosecutor to file criminal complaints for the first time .
A total of seven people were buried and six killed in these avalanches.
After the resorts closed on March 14, the proportion of incidents involving highly experienced backcountry travelers who 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 more people with advanced experience and avalanche training were involved in accidents after the shutdown, and an increase in accidents wasn’t 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 trapped, carried, or buried on slides.
A picture of the ridge line and east facing terrain on Mount Emmons where Crested Butte ski guide Dan Escalante died in an avalanche. The wet plate avalanche broke 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.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
In addition to determining avalanche formation through face-to-face interviews, Greene and Logan developed a system based on multiple research models to assess the avalanche formation experience using indirect evidence such as observer interview reports and second-hand descriptions.
For their closer investigation, Green and Logan identified 126 people who were involved in 86 avalanches in the past season. These 126 include:
88 people were caught and carried in movable slides. Six people were killed. Eight people who triggered avalanches but were not caught. 30 people who were not moved by snow. 76 men and 13 women. 86 were touring in the hinterland. 13 were motorized travelers. Greene and Logan grouped incidents in the months before the ski resorts closed on March 14 and in the weeks after that when backcountry travel spiked. From late November to mid-February, the CAIC recorded 16 people involved in 11 avalanches with six burials and four deaths. In around six weeks after the ski areas closed, the center recorded 10 people involved in nine avalanches that killed two people.
A photo of the deadly avalanche on April 16, 2020 near Silverthorne.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
The study is one of the earliest attempts to examine not just statistics drawn from the small pool of accidents that resulted in death or injury, but all incidents, including avalanches, in which no one was caught 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 come up with something that would help us understand this better.”
One reason for the study is the looming boom in backcountry travel this winter, which is expected to be reflected last spring, when the resorts closed due to the pandemic and the number of incidents soared.
This season, more skiers, snowboarders, and motorized users are expected to flood the backcountry as resorts grapple with limited crowds and retailers and backcountry gear manufacturers report record sales.
That has educators and search and rescue teams on the sidelines. A multi-agency awareness campaign is underway in Colorado aimed at engaging backcountry travelers to learn avalanche awareness programs and formalized instruction, with many resources available online this winter.
And, according to Greene and Logan’s study, it may not be the newcomers who see a potential spike in avalanche accidents this season. Her research supports the belief that beginners who flood the hinterland are more dangerous than seasoned travelers who could venture further into dangerous terrain at times of greater peril.
Greene and Logan found that most of the people who were involved in avalanches last season were intermediate or advanced. This mirrors previous research showing that experienced and educated backcountry travelers spend more time in avalanche areas and tend to go into the backcountry when avalanche risk is increased.
What worries Greene is that a growing percentage of experienced travelers will trigger avalanches when the danger rises to Level 3 or “Considerable”. At this point, natural avalanches are possible and human-induced slides likely.
Almost half of all US avalanche deaths occur when the hazard rating is “Considerable”. Most occur in Colorado when the hazard rating is Level 2 or “Medium” or “Major”.
Greene and Logan noted that a greater proportion of the incidents that occurred when last season’s hazard rating was rated as “significant” occurred in the weeks after the resorts closed in mid-March, suggesting that backcountry travelers were traveling accept a higher avalanche exposure in dangerous periods.
And these travelers were quite educated. Almost 40% of people caught in an avalanche last season were in a formal level 1 avalanche class. About 70% had intermediate or advanced avalanche training.
What started as a small slide of a few inches of fresh snow descended onto a weak layer and eventually scrubbed the ground in the March 25 avalanche that involved two snowboarders charged with reckless endangerment and fines, over a damaged avalanche protection system to replace.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
The proportion of incidents following the closure of the pandemic resorts is worrying, Greene said.
“We saw a sharp spike in post-pandemic accidents on ‘Considerable’ and when you look at the total number of ‘Considerable’ 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 that his predictions and reports help educate seasoned backcountry travelers as well.
“This stuff is useful for everyone,” he said.
What to do? Do further research and issue reports, Greene said. Encourage all backcountry travelers to review the forecast before each trip and promote a better understanding of the avalanche risk rating scale, which Green describes as a “challenging communication tool”.
The rating scale is beneficial because it is used all over the world. And it can be difficult to understand because it measures and assesses 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 on ‘Moderate’ and that’s because it’s often difficult to find a seat, but when you do it’s pretty easy to trigger that slide.”
Halsted Morris, the president of the American Avalanche Association, wants skiing and snowmobiling skills to be explored in addition to avalanche training and experience. People with more experience in avalanche areas tend to be better skiers and want to explore more challenging terrain.
“We keep coming up with the idea that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I don’t think that’s entirely true,” said Morris, a longtime avalanche educator. “If that were true, we wouldn’t have so many experienced and skilled people getting into trouble. We would have people without education who would get into trouble. “
The American Avalanche Association, like most avalanche education groups, encourages newcomers in the backcountry to attend an avalanche course or an awareness clinic. Not only that, but also think about first aid, surviving an exposed night in the mountains, and your ability to drag an injured pal out of the snowy wildlands, Morris said.
“Those skills come from experience and I think guides are the people new people should connect with,” said Morris. “It’s not that you want to hire a guide to do some skiing. You will hire a guide to learn a range of critical skills. “