Colorado Avalanche Information Center sees increase in people caught and carried by slides |

Colorado Avalanche Information Center sees increase in people caught and carried by slides

Scott Condon | Aspen Times
Part-time Steamboat Springs resident Rick Casey measures the angle of a slope on Rabbit Ears Pass during an avalanche clinic field session. (Photo by Matt Stensland)
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ASPEN — Four people have died in backcountry avalanches in Colorado this winter, but the number of fatalities could have been even greater after numerous close calls in the Colorado backcountry, particularly in January, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“We’ve had a lot more people caught and carried by avalanches this year,” Avalanche Information Center Deputy Director Brian Lazar said.

Spencer Logan, who manages the Avalanche Information Center’s accident database, dug deeper into data for the state.

“As of January 31, we have documented 57 people caught in 42 separate avalanche events,” Logan wrote on a blog post on the center’s website earlier this month. That included 32 people caught in slides in January alone. The 57 people caught are more than reported to CAIC in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2017-18 combined.

As of the end of January, there had been five people who had been fully buried but survived avalanches this season.

Lazar said Colorado has averaged six avalanche deaths annually over the past decade. Avalanche Information Center research shows that by the end of January, there are typically two or three fatalities per season.

“The differences in total seasonal fatalities over recent winters tend to appear in February or April,” Logan wrote in the blog. “Over the last few decades, most fatal avalanches occur in January, February or March. Accidents in the spring separate typically tragic from exceptionally tragic seasons.”

The deadliest winter for avalanches in Colorado was 1992-93, when 12 people were killed. The 1986-87 and 2012-13 seasons were right behind with 11 fatalities.

Nothing about the Colorado snowpack this year is wildly different from conditions in other winters, Lazar said. As is typical in the state, early-season snow in October didn’t melt off before full-fledged winter. The lower layers deteriorated and weakened. That made conditions susceptible to slides when above-average snowfall started dumping later in the winter. Breaks between storms have allowed additional layers to weaken, Lazar said. That becomes a problem when loaded by new storms.

The explosion in the popularity of backcountry skiing suggests that more people are venturing out, Lazar said, and with more people come more problems. The Avalanche Information Center is confident in the accuracy of its statistics on fatalities, but it only knows about other incidents when they are reported. Lazar said it is likely that the number of people who were buried but survived slides is higher than the center is able to report.

“It could be more are being caught in avalanches this year,” he said.

Staff keep seeking additional ways to get the word out when conditions are dangerous. It posted a special note on its website prior to Presidents Day weekend.

“Over the last 10 years, February is the single-most dangerous month for avalanches in Colorado,” the notice said. It noted there had been 15 fatal avalanches during the month over the past decade, with four deaths between Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day.

“Historically, this weekend has been a dangerous period for avalanche accidents,” the website said prior to the weekend. “We would like to break the pattern.”

That made a fatal accident that weekend in the backcountry outside of Crested Butte particularly tough on the Avalanche Information Center staff.

“It weighs heavily on us,” Lazar said.

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