Colorado has more avalanche deaths than any other state

An avalanche on the southeast aspect of Peak 1 seen on Friday, Feb. 1.
Teague Holmes via the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Avalanche facts:

-From the 1950-51 through the 2016-17 season, Colorado saw over 100 more avalanche fatalities than any other state (276). The closest state on the list is Alaska, with just 152.

-More recently, between the 2008-09 and the 2016-17 seasons, Colorado again topped the list with 59 avalanche fatalities, ahead of Washington’s 39.

-From the 2008-09 season through the 2016-17 season, snowmobiling was the most deadly sport in regards to avalanche fatalities in the United States with 88 deaths. Other activities on the list include backcountry touring (79), Sidecountry riding (28) and climbing (27).

Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Winter in Colorado is a way of life.

Skiers and snowboarders instinctually flock to the resorts and the backcountry like birds in migration; children take to the parks for snowball fights and sledding, and shops and restaurants open their doors to the floods of tourists emerging from the Front Range and around the country.

But Coloradans, perhaps more than residents in any other states that embrace the cold and ice as an identity, understand the inherent risks that come with it. When it comes to avalanches, Colorado stands alone as the single most dangerous destination in the country. And if the early numbers are any indication, the state may be headed for a grim milestone.

“We’re always concerned about people getting caught in an avalanche, so having more people getting caught is definitely a concern,” said Ethan Green, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “That’s why we put those numbers out there, so people think about the winter with a better context and hopefully get avalanches into the forefront of their decision making as they’re heading into the backcountry.”

As of Jan. 31, there were 56 people caught in 42 separate avalanches in Colorado this season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Sixty percent of those incidents took place in January alone, a troublingly high-water mark compared to season-to-date numbers over the last few years.

From October through January, the 56 people caught in an avalanche this season is a more than 400 percent increase from this point last year (13), and a significant increase over the previous seven-year high in 2017 (37). In January this year, 32 people were caught in avalanches, nearly three times the month’s average of 12.2 dating back to 2013. Projecting similar rates to the end of the season, 2018-19 could potentially see the most recorded incidents of individuals caught in an avalanche that the CAIC has ever recorded.

The data also shows that the total number of avalanches reported is also reaching uncharacteristic heights, with more than 1,100 reported so far this season, compared with just 513 through January last season and an average 645 through January over the last five years.

Of note, just over six percent of the individuals who were caught in an avalanche in January were killed (2) during incidents, despite seven people having been critically buried, compared to the long-term annual fatality rate of eight percent.

There are a number of possible explanations for why this January saw so many more incidents than in years past, starting, of course, with the snow. Green noted the early season snowfall, followed by consistent storms in December are the likely culprit for this season’s bloated numbers.

“It’s all about how the winter unfolds,” said Green. “The scenario we have this year is a lot of early snow in October and November that didn’t melt. It forms a weak structure, and it’s not that big of a problem until more snow piles on top of it. In mid-late December, we started getting heavy and consistent snowfall that started to build a thick, hard layer on the weak base. It’s the perfect set up for avalanches.”

Green noted that the conditions this season also allow for more temperamental surroundings, wherein avalanches can be triggered by individuals on a separate slope or just approaching the base of a peak, often catching backcountry enthusiasts off-guard. Green continued to say that given the conditions, the heavy avalanche pattern is likely to continue throughout the season.

“It’s the most likely scenario,” said Green. “There’s potential for it to get warm and maybe for the storm track to shift to put us into a calmer period of weather, but the most likely scenario we see is continued snowfall throughout the rest of the season, which will keep the avalanche danger elevated.”

Other explanations for the increase in avalanche activity may in part also be a rise in the number of people participating in recreation activities in the state’s backcountry, or even an increase in the number of individuals reporting the slides they witness or stumble across. Green noted that the number of avalanche’s that are reported are a “fairly small proportion” of the actual number each year. But officials say that the lack of reporting can actually be a major concern for emergency workers and search and rescue teams.

“A lot of people think it’s illegal, but slides happen all the time,” said Charles Pitman, spokesman for the Summit County Rescue Group. “By calling it in, when somebody else comes by a day or two later, we’ll already know about it and won’t need to respond. If somebody doesn’t call it in, our first response is to look for tracks in and out of the slide. If we can’t see any tracks we have no choice but to get people on scene.”

Pitman — who noted that his team has seen a recent uptick in minor avalanche calls this season — said that unreported slides often result in wasted resources like rescue workers, dog teams and Flight for Life being called in unnecessarily to respond to the scene. Pitman said that anyone who witnesses an avalanche should look around to try and determine if anyone else was involved, and should look around for tracks leading in and out of the slide. If there are tracks leading both in and out of the slide, it’s indicative that somebody managed to escape. But if there are tracks in and not out, the rescue group springs into action immediately. Individuals who witness an avalanche should report the incident to non-emergency dispatch at 970-668-8600, including the location of the slide, and coordinates if possible.

Both Pitman and Green recommended that anyone planning to spend a day in the backcountry check the avalanche forecast on the CAIC website, take an avalanche class, and familiarize themselves with the most important tools for avalanche safety: an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. Pitman also said that backcountry explorers should hone their beacon skills at the Frisco Adventure Park, which offers free practice opportunities for people of all skill levels.

“We have a weak layer, and every storm puts more snow of top of that and it’s going to get worse throughout the winter,” said Pitman. “It hasn’t been a banner year in Summit County as it has in the rest of the state. But that could change in a heartbeat with every storm.”

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