Colorado consistently records the most avalanche fatalities of any state in the US.
Each winter, a few unlucky people in Colorado will be caught and buried by these winter tragedies. The third avalanche fatality in Colorado this season occurred Feb. 6, when a backcountry telemark skier died South of Crystal Peak, in Gunnison County.
Why does Colorado top this infamous avalanche fatality list? Snow conditions and the interaction of people with terrain make for more avalanche opportunity.
The continental climate of the Rockies contributes greatly to avalanche risk. The relatively low snow pack and cold temperatures lead to changes in snow layers. This snow metamorphism causes weaknesses that can lead to avalanches.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website (http//geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche), about 2,000 avalanches are reported to the Avalanche Center each winter. Many more go unreported, said Scott Toepfer, mountain weather and avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The top avalanche months are January and February, followed closely by December and March. This winter, Colorado has prime avalanche conditions, and the avalanche season “could be ugly.” Toepfer said.
Besides the often shaky snow conditions, people factor in to the mix.
“There is more opportunity (in Colorado),” said Rodney Ley, Coordinator of Colorado State University’s Outdoor Adventure Program. “There are more places to go, more snow and more people,” Ley said.
Snowmobilers have become the top avalanche triggers of any backcountry sport group, surpassing both backcountry and out-of-bounds skiers and climbers.
There has been a “significant” increase in snowmobiler fatalities in the last five years, Toepfer said.
So far this season, eight of the 13 avalanche victims have been snowmobilers, he said.
In general, snowmobilers are not from a mountaineering or skiing background, but more from an RV or motorcycling background, so they often lack basic outdoor skills, Ley said. And many snowmobilers simply don’t take time to get any avalanche education, Toepfer added.
Flying over the snow at 60 miles per hour does not lend itself to properly observing the snow conditions, and noticing possible danger, Toepfer said.
Snowmobile technology has advanced to the point where people can go where they never could before. Powerful new vehicles can make the rider feel invincible enough to attack steep slopes and put themselves in dangerous situations.
No matter what the activity, 99 percent of avalanches are caused by men – most of whom are between the ages of 18 and 35.
Statistically, more men can be found in avalanche terrain, Ley said. But in the end, it comes down to risk taking.
“There’s a reason why mostly young men die in avalanches; it’s truly about behavior,” Ley said. “At the top of the hill you’ve got four guys with balls to the wall, ready to go.”
The good news is, these days in-bounds ski areas are virtually avalanche-free because of vigilant monitoring and avalanche prevention techniques.
“It’s really bad for business to have people who buy expensive tickets die,” Ley said. “It ruins hot chocolate sales for the day.”
Those who venture into the backcountry or out of bounds, face a much greater risk.
Knowing what kind of snow conditions to look for is essential. More than 80 percent of avalanches reported to Colorado’s Avalanche Information Center occur during, or just after large snowstorms.
Slab avalanches are the most deadly of all avalanche types. traveling between 60 and 80 miles per hour. According to the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center website, (www.avalanche.org) these slides can be likened to a dinner plate sliding off a table when a cohesive slab of snow slides across a fractured, weaker snow layer.
Fresh avalanche paths are the best way to tell if snow is dangerous, but unstable snow often cracks, collapses or makes hollow sounds, according to the CAIC website.
Wind, temperature changes, and precipitation must be noted and interpreted. Slope angle can also contribute to the danger.
The book “Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard,” by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, recommends several snow-testing techniques, such as digging a snow pit or doing a shear block test to examine the snow history an layer stability. Performing the “Banzai Jump Test”, where a group jumps on the snow at a safe location, can help check how snow responds to extra force.
According to the CIAC, the best way to avoid triggering an avalanche is to “Travel at the valley floor away from large avalanche runouts, along ridgetiops above avalanche paths, in dense timber, or on slopes of 25 degrees or less that do not have steeper slopes above them.”
The CIAC also recommends traveling in a group of three or four, Toepfer said.
“The more people you have, the more logistical situations you get into,” he said.
The amount of information needed to understand and avoid avalanches seems daunting, but education is the key to staying safe.
“You’ve got to start by getting and education-you need to be able to navigate, know survival skills, some basic first aid skills and avalanche skills,” Toepfer said.
Toepfer recommends taking avalanche classes with a hands-on approach that actually take you to the slope and demonstrate the techniques.
“It’s incredibly valuable to get at least one field day out of your class,” Toepfer said. “It’s your environment and you should be in it. ”
Avalanches can be avoided but it is up to the people who can cause them.
“The mountains aren’t very forgiving of mistakes,” Toepfer said.