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People search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The avalanche buried and killed two people. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)

Sara Boilen stands at the front of her avalanche class each winter in Whitefish, Montana, and surveys her students. She offers two options and asks them to raise their hands to identify the more dangerous backcountry ski partner: a 22-year-old male or a middle-aged woman. Without fail, students overwhelmingly choose the young male.

They are wrong.

Boilen, a clinical psychologist and avid backcountry skier, recently published a paper investigating the average age of people killed in avalanches since 1950. The results were surprising.

From 1950-90 the average age of victims was 27. From 1990-2019, the age rose to 33, a significant jump by research standards. 

Although there was a positive trend in fatalities in all age groups from 1958 to 2018, since 1990, only the 30-39 and 40-49 bands revealed statistically significant increases in avalanche deaths. 

“Why are older people dying more? That’s a weird phenomenon,” Boilen said.  “You would think it’s the opposite.” 

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center maintains U.S. avalanche fatality statistics dating back to 1950. There were 25 deaths in eight states during the 2018-19 season, eight of them in Colorado. Twelve people have died in avalanches in six states this season, two of them in Colorado. The most recent was a 44-year-old woman who was swept away during a guided ice climb south of Ouray on Saturday

Van Le Little, 44, was killed Jan. 18, 2020, when a block of ice broke from a climb and triggered a small avalanche that swept her from where she was standing into a creek in the Uncompahgre Gorge south of Ouray. She was not climbing at the time and was untethered. Little, from Seattle, is the second avalanche fatality of the 2019-20 season. (Provided by Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

More users, but overall fatalities remain flat

The trend in fatality rates has remained flat for several years. Researchers say with increasing numbers of backcountry users venturing off the controlled slopes of ski resorts, it’s surprising that fatality rates have not increased.

It’s a different story for 30-to-39-year-old backcountry users. Boilen has several theories as to why the average age of avalanche deaths has increased. The first is the “terror management” theory, a phrase coined by Sheldon Solomon, one of her psychology professors at Skidmore College. The theory states that as we grow more aware of our mortality, such as finding gray hairs as we stare into the mirror, the more likely we are to act irresponsibly. Older skiers may be taking greater risks without realizing it.

Second, Boilen said, is opportunity cost. As backcountry enthusiasts grow older, there is a greater “seize the day” mentality — if a weekend warrior has only one day to ski each week, there is an opportunity cost to making the most of that day. Older age creates more responsibility, and thus fewer days of opportunity, Boilen said.

Lastly, she said, the further away backcountry users get from their avalanche education, the more mistakes they are likely to make. 

“Say you’ve been digging [snow] pits the same way for 20 years,” Boilen said. “You don’t know what you don’t remember.”

Without continued education, backcountry users remain out of the loop of new and updated information and changing safety recommendations.

Eric Pzietch, a physical scientist who co-authored the article with Boilen, said we typically think people get wiser as they get older, but their research suggests that is not the case. 

It is difficult to record how many people are actually recreating in the backcountry each winter, so Pzietch’s team created a system to make an educated guess. To estimate how many people ski in the backcountry, they tracked visits to avalanche centers’ websites and bulletins. Though Pzietch acknowledges this method isn’t perfect, they found it the most effective way to estimate backcountry users.

Pzietch and Boilen’s study recommends several solutions in education and forecasting to address fatalities in older backcountry users. Chiefly, they suggest educational programs market classes to older, more experienced adventurers by offering new techniques and information that build on a person’s existing knowledge. For example, they note the well-known and often-used Know Before You Go program may be less effective for older age groups. 

Participants in Bluebird Backcountry’s April 27, 2019, class at Winter Park practice their avalanche beacon searching skills. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Results could help inform avalanche forecasting and education efforts by identifying groups most vulnerable to avalanche accidents. This, in turn, helps the avalanche community target and apply appropriate messaging and educational techniques. 

Boilen said she hopes the research encourages the avalanche community to give the same attention to people and their thinking as they give to winter storms and snowpack. 

Dave Bumgarner is an AMGA Certified ski guide and avalanche instructor in Crested Butte, Colorado. He’s spent the past few years researching the human factors that cause avalanche fatalities and accidents. His conclusion is simple: avalanche education should focus on protocols. 

Backcountry winter activities are often compared to other risky behaviors, such as flying planes. Bumgarner notes that pilots never leave the ground without completing a list of protocols. He emphasizes the necessity of backcountry protocols and trip planning tools for skiers and snowmobilers that emphasize decision-making — each time they head out into the mountains.

Bumgarner recognizes avalanche education is optional, and students spend time and money to become educated. He believes more research on risk and how people, such as pilots, operate in risky situations will benefit backcountry users in their own decision-making.  

Some avalanche experts believe as we get older, we accept less risk.

Billy Rankin, the guide operations and risk manager for Irwin Guides in Crested Butte, has seen his own level of risk acceptance decrease as he’s aged. Rankin says “risk homeostasis” keeps people dying in avalanches each year. He believes as more education and technology become available, the more risk backcountry enthusiasts are willing to take. 

“I survived my 20s and I ramped it down in my 30s,” he said. “Then I had a kid … I don’t care if I don’t ski that sick line and sick snow anymore, I’m now in it for the longevity and to ski with my family as long as possible.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @SMaltarich