Between January 16 and 24, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) has reported 10 fatalities due to avalanches—six of the victims were skiers or riders. Before Jan. 16, there had been no skier or rider deaths to date in the winter of 2015/16.The culprit? Snow conditions have been reportedly unstable, with a weak depth hoar layer plaguing most of the western United States and new snowfall adding to the avalanche hazard. Sadly, the human factor will always play a role in avalanche accidents and this recent trend begs the question, are we seeing these deaths because of a particularly dangerous avalanche cycle, or is there something else at play?
The first of these deaths happened in Hatcher Pass, Alaska when a snowboarder triggered a slide on a cross-loaded slope while descending Skyscraper Mountain.
“The avalanche was triggered while descending by snowboard. Victim was traveling with one other partner, neither were wearing avalanche beacons,” reports the CAIC. “Lack of avalanche beacons and the depth of the burial contributed to a long burial time, approximately 45 minutes.”
The second death occurred in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on January 19, where another snowboarder ventured onto Pyramid Peak in the Teton Mountains. A witness called in the slide to Teton Country Search and Rescue, but the snowboarder was buried too deep to locate in time. The CAIC attributed windslab as the initial factor in triggering the slide, also noting that the snowboarder was riding alone.
Also on January 19 in the Madison Range near Big Sky, Montana, a Yellowstone Club Ski Patroller, acting as part of a group conducting snow science research, was fatally involved in a slide.
According to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, the patroller, “jumped off a cornice onto a steep (39-42 degrees) wind-loaded slope which avalanched on his second turn.” The avalanche took the patroller through a stand of trees, where he became partially buried and died of blunt force trauma.
The fourth fatality transpired on January 21, where two men, ages 49 and 50, were skiing Gobblers Knob in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. The two skiers had been managing terrain by skiing one at a time and regrouping at islands of safety. Despite these safety precautions, one of the skiers triggered a hard-slab avalanche that propagated “a couple hundred feet wide,” according to the CAIC report, and caught both skiers. One skier was wearing an avalanche airbag that he was able to trigger. He successfully located his friend with a beacon search and probe strike, but “the skier was recovered without a pulse,” says the CAIC.
The most recent deaths took place on Sunday just outside the resort boundary at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In this incident, three skiers, none of whom were equipped with avalanche safety tools, skied through a resort boundary gate that leads to the Rock Springs drainage. A few inches of new snow had accumulated the night prior, adding to the avalanche hazards—windslab and a persistent weak layer in the snowpack— that have persisted in the Jackson Hole area for most of the season.
“[At] the crown of the avalanche, the fracture was reported by patrollers to be two- to four-feet deep. It broke about 200 feet wide,” Mike Rheam, a forecaster for the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, told the Jackson Hole News and Guide.
The fatalities occurred when two of the three individuals were swept over a cliff band. The survivor was able to grab a tree for safety. The victims were buried one- to three-feet deep and were found in just a little over an hour, despite not wearing beacons. They were both pronounced dead upon recovery.
“The number of accidents over the last 10 days makes this January an unusually bad one,” says Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster for the CAIC of the recent spike in avalanche incidents. “This is the third worst month for avalanche fatalities in the last 15 years. It is the worst January since 1998.”
As for the cause of the trend, Logan paints a bigger picture that includes both human and natural factors. “Across the Rocky Mountains, we went through a period of relatively dry and stable snow in early January. Over the last few weeks we have had snowstorms that have added a slab on top of weak snow,” says Logan. “The snowpack can change fairly rapidly and there is often a delay between actual avalanche problems and our [the backcountry community’s] perception of them.
It is still January, and there are winter months ahead to turn this trend around, but to stay informed and educated, visit local avalanche forecasting websites and get educated about avalanche safety through programs like Know Before You Go, the Mountain Academy hosted by Solomon and Atomic and through courses offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) offered nationwide.
To find out more about CAIC reports, visit avalanche.state.co.us.