As one avalanche expert says, this year’s snowpack was a recipe to kill.
So far, avalanches have claimed 25 people, all but one of whom live in the west.
Across west and east Idaho and west Wyoming, the backcountry slopes recently received several feet of fresh snow that built up on poor snow foundation that had rotted away from long dry spells in December and January.
“When it snows heavily, it’s on very poor foundation,” said Bill Radecky, an avalanche educator and guide from Rigby.
While ski resorts reduce avalanche hazards, backcountry users need to be their own hazard experts.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center recorded 16 slides in the past week, some of which were hit by skiers. An avalanche hit the Teton Pass on Tuesday.
As snow continues to fall in the mountains, the latest avalanche forecasts range from “considerable” to “high”. The recommendations for the Grays River / Salt River area state: “Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche areas is not recommended. “
Sarah Carpenter, director of the American Avalanche Institute in Jackson, Wyo., Said there have been several near misses in the Teton Range area but no deaths to date. Earlier this winter, a snowmobile driver was killed in an avalanche in the nearby Salt River Range.
“There are some close calls and people are lucky,” said Carpenter. “What I’m taking away from the accidents we see is a really careful travel log and trying to avoid avalanche terrain.”
An avalanche on Sunday claimed the lives of a skier from Bozeman, Mont.Utah saw its deadliest avalanche in about 30 years on February 6, when four skiers died at the age of 20 and another four fell from a 1,000-foot slide in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City.
“If we look at it as avalanche professionals, (the deaths) aren’t that surprising,” Radecky said. “It’s the recipe this year between so long a lack of snow and people trying to make up for the lack of snow early in the season.”
He said that some skiers who are seasoned skiers often do not have the skills to ski the backcountry safely.
Carpenter said the long dry spells that left weak layers across the west weren’t as bad in the Tetons, but there are still many areas of concern.
“If you put a load on it, try building a house on a sand foundation,” she said. “Whenever we put pressure on our snowpack, I have responded by taking a step back in my choice of terrain in terms of willingness to travel in the hinterland.”
Radecky said you don’t rely on rescue equipment to save your bacon.
“Avalanche airbags are not a card that won’t get you out of jail,” he said. “We have had a few deaths this season where people used them and still died. The best system is to avoid avalanche terrain. “
Radecky and Carpenter offer some advice to winter backcountry users.
• Check the daily forecasts (avalanche.org) and keep track of recent avalanche activity.
• Drive through avalanche terrain one after the other.
• Use rescue equipment (beacon, probe, shovel) and practice using it.
• Learn to recognize and understand avalanche terrain when you are not in avalanche areas.
“You don’t have to be on the 40-degree slope, you can be below the 40-degree slope to put yourself in avalanche terrain,” Carpenter said. “If you are driving through a ravine and have steep slopes above you, you are in avalanche areas. … You can basically throw your legs off the table and put the whole plate on top of you. “