Officials urge caution this winter following deadly avalanche season
The snowy season has officially arrived, and that means residents and visitors — if they’re not already — will soon begin making their way to Summit County’s backcountry to ski and ride their favorite runs. But following the state’s deadliest avalanche season in recent memory, it’s important that recreationists take the time to ensure they’re well prepared, educated and equipped before heading out.
There were a total of 37 avalanche fatalities in the United States during the 2020-21 winter season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Of those, 12 occurred in Colorado. While Colorado has historically been the most deadly state for avalanches — accounting for 305 fatalities since the 1950-51 season, compared to 166 fatalities in Alaska, which ranks second on the list — last winter was the deadliest since the 1992-93 season.
Ethan Greene, the avalanche information center’s director, said instability in the state’s snowpack last season was a major contributing factor.
“The structure of the snowpack we had is not unprecedented in Colorado, but it is unusual,” Greene said. “We would sort of put the weakness or instability in the snowpack at kind of a one in 10 year event. It’s something we see every so often in Colorado, but we don’t see it every year, and we hadn’t really seen a year with snowpack like that since around 2012.”
Greene said early snow last October followed by a relatively dry November created a thin snowpack, which becomes a problem later in the season as more robust snowfall creates slabs on top of the weak base layer, creating a reactive snowpack that is easier for people to trigger.
The weak snowpack began to manifest into a major problem in December, when there were four avalanche fatalities in three slides throughout the state. It grew worse in February this year, when the center recorded seven fatalities in five slides, what Greene said was the deadliest February in Colorado since 1987, when seven people died, including four in a single avalanche on then-out-of-bounds Peak 7 terrain in Breckenridge.
It’s impossible to know what the coming months will bring, but Greene said the early snowfall in the area this year could potentially create similar conditions.
“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen this time of the year, but certainly having this early season snow does not bode well for us,” Greene said. “The best thing for avalanches in the state is when we have a relatively dry fall. And then when it starts to snow, it just continues to snow, and we build our snowpack in a fairly short amount of time. So having snow on the ground in October, exactly what will happen to that snow over the next two months is hard to say, but one outcome is we end up with a pretty weak basal layer in the snow, which is what caused us a lot of problems last year.
“I certainly wouldn’t say that we’re headed for the same year we had last year. But we have some similarities to what we were seeing this time last year, and those features didn’t play out very well.”
Already this season, there’s been at least one avalanche triggered by a skier Sunday, Oct. 24, near Loveland Pass, and there have been six others in the area triggered either naturally or intentionally with avalanche control devices.
Greene said an increase in the number of backcountry recreationists during the winter likely also contributed to the number of deadly avalanches last season. He said more people in the backcountry simply means more chances for people to get caught in avalanches, which means more chances that someone is injured or killed.
The best way to make sure you stay safe in the backcountry is to be prepared. Beginning Monday, Nov. 1, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center will start publishing daily regional avalanche forecasts, which provide essential information on weather, avalanche danger and descriptions of what elements in the snowpack could cause problems, such as elevation, slope aspect and the characteristics of how avalanches in the area have been triggered.
Having the proper gear and knowing how to use it is also vital. Experts recommend everyone heading into potential avalanche areas bring a transceiver, probing pole and a shovel. Taking the time to get in some extra training before venturing into the backcountry is also advised — whether that’s reading books, watching online tutorials or taking a multiday class with field work — no matter what level of experience.
“The key message this season is that last season, all 12 of the people killed had some experience, ranging from some experience to significant experience,” Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said. “So we really don’t want people to get complacent. When is the last time you took any kind of avalanche course? How old is your education? How rusty are your skills? That’s what people should be thinking about right now, especially if they’ve been doing it for a long time.”
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