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

"We are seeing a success story. But the source of that success is very complicated," said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

A backcountry skier ascends in the Snodgrass Mountain trail area near Crested Butte in January 2019 carrying avalanche gear and a rescue beacon. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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They tried to kick blocks of snow from the cornice, hoping a tumbling chunk might trigger an avalanche.

“All we were getting were crumbles. We just couldn’t get a big enough block to go,” said Bryan Wickenhauser, a champion ski mountaineering racer from Gunnison. “So yeah, there was some hesitancy. But we were all committed. No one was going the other way.”

The five skiers at the top of Red Lady Bowl on Mount Emmons above Crested Butte that morning in late November rank among the most accomplished ski mountaineers in Colorado, if not the West. The crew of uber-athletes has carved tracks on Red Lady every week for more than 20 winters and they were keen to kick off the season after a storm during Thanksgiving week dropped 22 inches of snow.

After the first skier laid down about 15 turns, the avalanche released.

Five skiers triggered an avalanche on Mt. Emmons’ Red Lady Bowl on Nov. 25, 2018. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center) 

Wickenhauser and his three partners on top started hollering.

“We yelled left and … he went left and the snow went big. We knew the islands of safety in that bowl, as long as the entire bowl didn’t go,” said Wickenhauser, a three-time winner of the grueling Grand Traverse ski-mountaineer race between Crested Butte and Aspen. “The skier was never caught in any moving snow.”

The group was familiar with the terrain, well equipped and aware of the risks. And there was some luck — as well as skill — in their dodging of disaster.

“One member of the group chalked up the close call to ‘powder fever,’” according to a report on the incident in the Colorado Avalanche Information Center database. “They recognized they were rolling the dice.”

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

Wickenhauser and his crew are part of a surging number of backcountry travelers pushing deeper into avalanche terrain, testing limits and plundering powder in the snowiest corners of the state. And more and more often, those avy-savvy backcountry explorers are returning home unscathed.

The last four years in Colorado has seen only 11 avalanche fatalities. That’s the fewest in any four-year stretch since the late 1970s. (Knock wood, right now.) The number of backcountry users killed in U.S. avalanches over the last 10 years — a sobering 261 — is down more than 8 percent from the previous 10-year span. The 2008-18 decade also marked a drop in avalanche deaths from the 1998-2008 decade in Alaska, Montana, Utah, Idaho and California.

That decline comes as populations across the West are growing rapidly. So are the number of skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, climbers and tourers venturing into the backcountry.

“It’s actually pretty remarkable, given the growth, in Colorado that our fatalities have stayed stable,” said veteran avalanche researcher, educator and forecaster Dale Atkins.

The downturn in fatalities follows significantly improved avalanche forecasting, with local avalanche centers providing daily regional assessments all winter. Of course, the last several seasons have included long stretches without much snowfall across the West, reducing the risk of huge slides. But even in the low-snow years, backcountry travelers are tuning into forecasts and filling avalanche-education clinics. Media and backcountry-gear makers are more involved in avalanche awareness and education campaigns.

At first blush, it would appear that a renewed push for avalanche safety across every aspect of the snowsports industry is working. But avalanche educators are hardly raising their ski poles in victory.

In the last 15 years, Colorado has seen highpoints, like the 11 deaths logged in the 2012-13 season and low points, like 2016-17, with only one death.

The drop in avalanche fatalities over the last four seasons is so steep that it triggered a slight downward trend for the last quarter century, the first sustained decline. But a large avalanche — especially a devastating slide like Sheep Creek that killed five skiers on Loveland Pass in 2013, or Liberty Ridge that killed six climbers on Washington’s Rainier in 2014 — can reverse a hopeful trend in an ugly minute.  

A CAIC report on the Sheep Creek drainage avalanche that killed five backcountry skiers on Loveland Pass in 2013. ViaYouTube.

“You don’t have to look back very far, just before the lull, when we were above average,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center since 2005. “When you are dealing with relatively small numbers, it all can change in an instant.”

The state-funded Colorado Avalanche Information Center maintains the national database on avalanche incidents and fatalities, so Greene, an expert skier with a Ph.D. in snow science, is fluent in avalanche statistics and trends.

Greene is quick to dispel any notion that there are fewer skiers involved in avalanches now than before. There is no requirement for skiers or snowmobilers to report a slide and, really, there are many reasons to not reveal involvement in a slide, largely concerning criticism and accusations lobbed from the internet. So there is no accurate tally of how many people are involved in slides.

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

“We do more and more to gain confidence in our number of incidents, but the only thing we know for sure is that the number of incidents we record is not right,” Greene said.

He’s equally reticent to cite numbers showing increased use of the backcountry. Sure, there are more backcountry travelers today than a decade ago. How many is impossible to know.

Backcountry gear sales provide a glimpse of the growth. SnowSports Industries America, a retail trade group, estimates that as many as 6 million skiers and snowboarders venture outside resort ropes annually. But that’s based on sales of equipment — like technical bindings, skins and walk-mode boots — that works fine inside resort boundaries.

“There’s a whole group of people who buy and use backcountry equipment to go up and down the ski area. Most manufacturers are hesitant to share their numbers on beacons. Basically, there hasn’t been a great retail number we could use,” Greene said.

Even without firm backcountry use numbers, the lure of untrammeled powder is obvious by the number of cars lining the highways over Berthoud and Loveland passes, or the parade of skiers hiking to East Vail from the Vail ski area after a big storm. The morning crowd of climbing skiers at uphill-friendly resorts, like Buttermilk, Eldora, Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge, can number in the hundreds. Snowmobile sales in western states have been climbing since 2015, with 34,200 registered snowmobiles in Colorado. There are more than 250,000 registered in the most avalanche-prone states: Colorado, Alaska, Washington, California, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Avalanche fatalities in the U.S. really started climbing in the mid-1990s, when snowmobile technology — longer tracks with larger paddles to grab snow — enabled thumb-throttling explorers to venture off trails and deeper into the snowy hills. Those machines allow users to access dangerous terrain all day long, versus climbing skiers who maybe get a lap or two on the steep stuff.

Once the new machines came around, avalanches started claiming the lives of about 10 snowmobilers a year, according to Greene’s analysis. Snowmobilers now top the U.S. avalanche fatality list, with 88 deaths since 2008.  From 1951 to 1990, a mere 14 snowmobilers died in avalanches.

The ski technology followed. In the early 2000s wider skis, lighter boots and better bindings made it even easier to ski up and float down remote powder stashes. And more recently, track-mounted motorcycles have created new backcountry users who can probe steeps that even snowmobilers can’t reach. The go-anywhere snow bikes have been involved in three fatal avalanches in recent years, including two in Colorado in 2016 and 2017 that account for half of the state’s avalanche deaths in the last two seasons.

“I think we are the tipping point for those snow bikes,” said Atkins, echoing a common refrain heard in avalanche discussions.  

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Fatalities do not reflect the growth in use or the technology speeding users deeper into avalanche terrain. Last December Greene co-authored a journal article critical of a previous analysis that noted an increase in avalanche deaths since 1950. Greene looked at fatalities since 1995 — when snowmobiles began boosting the annual death tally — and showed a stable or even declining trend.

“While we might not know exactly the slope of that use line, we feel the number of deaths is not going up at the same rate. It’s staying much more flat and even has indication that it is going down,” Greene said. “So we are seeing a success story. But the source of that success is very complicated.”

About five years ago, several high-profile slides involving experienced skiers prodded a revamped focus on avalanche awareness. Educators started emphasizing decisionmaking. Avalanche-safety gear makers took a larger role in promoting avalanche education. The producers behind adrenaline-charged ski movies began urging awareness of the often avoidable risks hiding in avalanche terrain, as did popular ski magazines, like Powder. The industry and media realized they had done a phenomenal job marketing the inspirational aspects of backcountry skiing and maybe it was time to turn their efforts toward sparking a deeper appreciation of the sport’s perils.

“We need to give people a little better view of the real world they are getting into,” Kim Miller, the president of backcountry ski boot maker Scarpa North America, said during a “Business of the Backcountry” panel discussion at Denver’s SnowSports Industries America trade show in 2014. “We want people to understand the risks. This is about self-regulation and self-responsibility. Just like we ski in the backcountry, that’s the attitude we need to adopt in our businesses too.”

Today, thousands of skiers are skinning up groomed slopes at ski resorts, prodding first-ever resort uphill travel policies and proving newbie skinners a chance to hone techniques before venturing into avalanche terrain.

Uphill skiers at Aspen Snowmass’ Buttermilk Mountain. (Anna Stonehouse, The Aspen Times)

Local ski shops, grappling with the growth in online retail, are hosting avalanche clinics, as a way to establish themselves as community assets. Education programs, like the wildly successful Know Before You Go campaign corralled the U.S. Forest Service and all 22 U.S. avalanche forecasting centers in crafting an hour-long presentation promoting avalanche awareness. The program — with a video or slideshow from an avalanche professional — preaches the need for safety gear, like an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, attention to weather and avalanche forecasts, and the ability to recognize and travel through avalanche terrain. It’s a chance to reach skiers who might not be lining up for a more intensive course but are still heading into the backcountry.

The motorized community also has embraced avalanche education. Brian Lundstedt lost his brother Tyler in an avalanche six years ago on Buffalo Pass, east of Steamboat Springs, and launched an avalanche education effort geared toward motorized users. Hundreds of Colorado snowmobilers have passed through the Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness program, which offers free clinics and more intensive training through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

“Brian’s work has made a huge difference,” said Scott Jones, the president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association.

Snowmobile giants like Ski-Doo and Polaris offer free clinics and classes through dealers across the state. And at about 30 snowmobile trailheads across the state, solar-powered beacon stations flash green or red when snowmobilers pass, indicating whether the rider’s beacon is working.

About 30 snowmobile trailheads in Colorado feature these solar-powered, beacon-checking signs, urging motorized backcountry travelers to carry avalanche equipment. (Scott Jones, Provided by Colorado Snowmobile Association) 

“Those are an in-your-face reminder that the risk is out there,” Jones said. “We are seeing just a lot more interest in safety in the last few years. We did have a couple really bad years a while back and that’s a horrible way to become aware that you need training, but it’s raised the questions we need to be asking. It feels like all this is making a difference.”

Today, Miller, with Scarpa, sees the cultural shift toward safety in the backcountry as something akin to the widespread recognition of the dangers from smoking or the increased use of seatbelts decades ago. It takes years of subtle changes to change a mentality, and maybe that’s what happening in the U.S., Miller said. Those changes include a growing recognition of not just dangerous terrain and conditions, but how poor decisions made in the backcountry can yield devastating consequences.

“The thing that really rises to the top for me is that all these different groups and all these different actions, we are all on the same page and that’s pretty unusual,” Miller said. “It’s been a grassroots rising of awareness and we have all stayed focused on how we wanted to change in a cultural and societal sense.”

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