A once-in-a-decade layer of rotten snow in the mountains combined with unprecedented traffic in the backcountry made the 2020-21 avalanche season the deadliest in many years.
The 37 deaths across the country — each a tragedy that will resonate for lifetimes — delivered lessons to avalanche forecasters and researchers, especially in Colorado, where 12 men were killed, matching a painful high mark set in the winter of 1992-93.
“A lot of the accidents we saw last year were people going to the places where they felt like an avalanche would not happen, but if you looked at the terrain from an Avalanche 101 perspective, these were slopes that were steep enough to slide and with the snow pack we had last year they were much more dangerous than they were in previous years,” said Ethan Greene, the executive director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
As those avalanche educators and forecasters distill a season many would prefer to forget, they’re learning lessons that can help them in their overarching mission to raise awareness of avalanche risks in the snowy backcountry.
More than 900 online attendees of the 20th annual Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s annual Snow and Avalanche Workshop gathered earlier this month to hear from researchers who analyzed last season’s accidents for signs or lessons that could help backcountry travelers avoid avalanches.
The weak layer of rotten, sugary October snow promised to shed slabs of new snow in December and January last winter. The acute threat of avalanches on that weak layer coincided with a boom in backcountry travel. Sales of touring skis and avalanche equipment exploded. Traffic to avalanche forecasting websites doubled.
When snow started piling up in late January, avalanche forecasters across the West started to ramp up aggressive warnings.
In Colorado, it was the most dangerous snowpack in a decade. In Idaho, it was the worst in 20 years, said Karl Birkeland, the director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Montana.
In one six-day period in the first week of February, 10 people were killed in six avalanches in five states.
As the avalanche hazard increased, forecasters worried that hordes of newcomers would be involved in slides.
But that didn’t happen.
The ages of people killed in U.S. avalanches skewed older in 2020-21, with a median age of 44. In Colorado, the median age was 52. The median age of U.S. avalanche victims from 1990 to 2018 was 34. And the skiers, snowmobilers and climbers killed in 2020-21 tended to have experience.
The trend toward more experienced skiers mirrored a Colorado Avalanche Information Center study from the previous season, which showed a large number of veteran backcountry travelers involved in avalanches after ski resorts closed due to the pandemic in mid-March 2020.
Compared to previous decades of accidents, the 2020-21 season had a similar mix of solo travelers and groups as well as motorized and non-motorized backcountry travelers caught or killed in slides.
“When we look at all these accidents, what really stands out is a tendency to underestimate the terrain given the snowpack conditions,” said Birkeland, who read a statement from a skier whose partner was killed in a slide in an area they had skied many times before.
The skier, who wanted to share his belief that the pandemic had an impact on his decision-making that day, said he was exhausted from 10 months of constant stress from family, finances, school closures and lack of contact with friends.
“As a result, my typical training, motivation and mental reflection has been much less than normal this fall and winter,” the statement shared by Birkeland said.
Birkeland said a lot of educators and forecasters in the avalanche industry have been focused in recent years on younger and first-time backcountry skiers. The Know Before You Go avalanche safety program targets younger backcountry travelers who may be more inclined to take risks. But the 2020-21 avalanche victims were older and they had perhaps taken avalanche education classes many years ago.
Birkeland suggested a marketing program that targets those more veteran travelers with messages urging them to refresh their education “because there’s a lot of new information out here for you.”
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “We are going to have to see if this is sort of an anomalous couple years where we have older avalanche victims or it becomes more of a pattern for us.”
Almost a third of the country’s avalanche deaths occurred in Colorado. Researchers had to dig back into archives from the early 1900s, when avalanches blasted through mining camps, to find a season where more than 12 people were killed in slides.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Spencer Logan broke down each of the state’s accidents,looking for insight into how avalanche forecasters might better educate and warn backcountry travelers.
After four skiers were killed in three slides in Colorado in December, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center crafted a series of public service announcements, urging backcountry travelers to rethink approaches and lines in avalanche terrain.
Then the snow let up in January and avalanche activity ebbed. After three experienced skiers from Eagle were killed in a slide near Ophir Pass on Feb. 1 and a Vail skier was killed Feb. 4 in East Vail, the center again launched another messaging campaign, warning travelers of a once-in-a-decade hazardous snowpack.
“The snowpack is exceptionally weak and we haven’t seen it this bad since 2012,” CAIC director Greene said in the Feb. 12 video update posted online. “So if you’ve been recreating in the Colorado backcountry for 20 years, this may be the second time that you’ve seen these conditions.”
As the busy President’s Day weekend approached with fresh snow and escalating avalanche hazards, even Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Feb. 11 issued a warning of “extremely dangerous” backcountry conditions.
On Feb. 14, a solo snowboarder was killed while ascending a popular line near Loveland Pass and a snowmobiler was buried and died in an avalanche near Rollins Pass. Then another snowmobiler was killed Feb. 16 in a slide near Rand.
Again CAIC and the Friends of CAIC group increased efforts to reach more backcountry travelers. They ran social media videos and even rented billboard space on the Front Range, with the message: “Avalanches kill. Don’t become a victim. Get the forecast.”
The CAIC logged a record number of avalanches, incidents and fatalities last winter. The center’s forecasters also noted crowded trailheads and more crowds in the backcountry, which was expected as resorts used reservation systems to limit crowding during the pandemic.
Logan said it was impossible to draw a line between increased use in the backcountry and avalanche deaths because it’s impossible to count how many people go into the backcountry every season. But he said crowding and backcountry skiers going deeper into the mountains in search of powder “played an indirect factor” in the state’s avalanche involvements last winter.
“Overlying, or behind all these changes in uses was COVID,” Logan said. “Again, there is not a straight line to draw, but factors like decision fatigue, risk tolerance and crowding in the backcountry are easy to ponder.”
Logan said the CAIC did a commendable job of anticipating the avalanche danger and innovating new strategies for sharing hazard messages.
“I think our information and efforts prevented us from having an even more tragic winter,” Logan said.
Maybe the center won’t need social media videos and roadside billboards every season, Logan said, “but I don’t see us losing these alternative avenues of communication or stopping finding new ways to reach people.”
The avalanche center got a financial boost from lawmakers this year. Legislation that transfers $25 million a year from the general fund to support the Department of Natural Resources directed $750,000 toward the center for “backcountry avalanche safety programs.”
(House Bill 1326 — also delivers $3.5 million to Colorado Parks and Wildlife for wildlife conservation, $1 million for the new outdoor equity grant program, $2.25 million for search and rescue teams and $17.5 million for parks staff and park infrastructure development.)
“We really want to look at ramping things up,” said Dan Gibbs, the director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. “We also want to look at partnering with local governments this year. There’s just a tremendous need.”
Greene said his team will be ready to craft widespread warnings about specific dangers, just as they did last year. And they are working to refine both the content and marketing of those warnings. He is working with the international avalanche education community on how to deliver information “in a personal way that people can use it and apply it to the slopes where they want to travel.”
If there’s a common theme Greene sees in his messaging last winter, it’s asking skiers “to take a step back and think about things in a very simple way.”
“A lot of what we talked about last year was really about returning to the fundamentals of avalanche safety, asking people to understand the snowpack and understand the terrain,” he said. “There are always places to go in the winter and stay out of avalanche terrain. We will be saying that again this year as we find new ways to provide information.”