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Hidden in the Colorado avalanche deaths downturn is a growing trend of avoidable accidents

"My challenge to avalanche educators right now is to develop a way to better instruct people on not just when to turn around, but how to turn around," said Dale Atkins, an avalanche educator.

A skier makes their way through deep snow in backcountry east of Vail Resort in December 2018. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Ethan Greene and Dale Atkins are the type of guys who are always scanning the horizon for risks.

The two veteran avalanche researchers may be enjoying a beautiful stretch of weather — with avalanche fatalities at a record low over the last four seasons — but they see a storm brewing.   

As they study their avalanche incident reports, they see more skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers involved in dangerous events that could have been avoided if they had followed the basic principles outlined in rudimentary safety clinics.

“These are people that have some avalanche experience. But you know how that goes. Whether it’s boating, climbing, skiing or snowmobiling, the better you get the more your goals get bigger. You try to accomplish more things and you end up cutting it a bit closer,” said Greene, the executive director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “They are getting tripped up by events that could have been avoided by following the principles outlined in the ‘Know Before You Go’ program.”

RELATED: A declining number of avalanche deaths in Colorado, the West in the past four seasons buoys hope

After only a month of skiing in Colorado, Green has fielded four reports detailing close-call avalanche incidents that caught or buried people in the backcountry.

As more accidents involve experienced backcountry skiers, safety educators emphasize a closer look at human behavior — specifically group decision-making — as a path to safer travel in avalanche terrain. More safety courses include aids to facilitate decision-making, identifying how expert skiers, machismo, powder fever, familiarity and other factors in a group can raise risks. That’s a big shift from when safety focused mostly on terrain, weather and how to identify sketchy snowpack.

In many ways, that focus on so-called heuristics has worked, with decision-making now a primary concern when traveling in avalanche terrain.

For up to date information on Colorado avalanche risk, visit avalanche.state.co.us.

“I think we have done a really good job of giving people knowledge and skills to push their limits, which is fun and part of the experience of the backcountry,” Atkins, the past president of the American Avalanche Association, said. “But it puts you on the edge more often, right on the cusp of an accident. My challenge to avalanche educators right now is to develop a way to better instruct people on not just when to turn around, but how to turn around.”

Backing off is not easy, said Bryan Wickenhauser, whose crew of skiers in late November kicked off an avalanche in Red Lady Bowl in Crested Butte, where they have skied every week of winter for the past two decades. He knows the dangers of adventuring with elite athletes. Especially when they are in familiar terrain and feeling confident.

A photo showing the massive Red Lady Bowl avalanche near Crested Butte. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

“You find ways to justify your decisions. You say, ‘Well it’s early season and the snowpack isn’t that deep. And we can see the whole run, the whole way down.’ There’s just so many factors we can use to justify our approach,” Wickenhauser said. “But yeah, the group dynamic is huge in the mental game.”

And bailing on a line when you are in a crew often takes more courage than charging, Wickenhauser said.

“All the sudden you can be this isolated dude who doesn’t want to ski a proposed route and that’s hard,” he said. “To make the commitment to opt out is huge.”

Even with the struggle to control human behavior in avalanche terrain, the recent decline in avalanche deaths indicates that skilled backcountry adventurers are making better decisions. They seem to be more ready for an emergency, as seen in a recent avalanche on the back side of Aspen Mountain that buried a ski guide, who was quickly located and dug from the snow, uninjured, by his ski-guide partner, using a beacon, probe and shovel.

This small slab avalanche on Nov. 24, 2018, on the backside of Aspen Mountain buried a ski guide, who was rescued uninjured by his partner. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

There are more stories like that every season. Airbags floating skiers above moving snow. Rescue skills on display. Better decisions yielding fewer accidents.

The frequency does not lessen the pain avalanches reap.  

“Sure, what we are seeing is encouraging. But when you have that front-row seat to accidents, it’s hard to get excited,” Greene said. “We have to go see where people died and talk to their friends and families. It’s hard to take a victory lap when you are still having those conversations. What we want to see is nobody dying in avalanches. That’s when we celebrate.”


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