This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The winter of 2022-23 was huge for the Colorado ski industry. Record snowfall. Record visitation. Record revenues. And a somber near-record for people killed in avalanches.
The 11 avalanche fatalities last winter marked a significant increase over the long-term average. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center documented 96 avalanche incidents that caught 122 people, an increase from the 10-year median of 56 incidents and 84 people caught.
Earlier this month the avalanche center hosted its annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop and hundreds of avalanche professionals and backcountry travelers rallied for the event in Breckenridge.
The workshop was a daylong buffet for snow geeks. Scientists and researchers presented a variety of new studies and technology to help reduce risks for backcountry travelers. More than 600 attendees — a vast majority of them bearded men with cool hats — scribbled notes as presenters offered new ways to map avalanche hazards, new insights into how wind and storms can spike avalanche danger and the likelihood of a replay of Colorado’s forest-rattling avalanche cycle in March 2019. At the edge of the packed Riverwalk auditorium, avalanche safety businesses offered the latest rescue tools and technology to reduce risks in the snowy wilds.
The rapt crowd at the avalanche workshop is indicative of the state’s increasing focus on avalanche safety and why the number of fatalities, while high, is not increasing nearly apace with the growing number of people exploring the state’s snowy backcountry.
“The public, whether they’re professionals or recreationalists, are getting engaged and trying to understand avalanches and use this information,” said Ethan Greene, who took the helm of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 2005 when there were 12 full-time employees.
Today the center has 31 forecasters and scientists studying the state’s snowpack and delivering a growing library of research and daily forecasts for winter travelers. The center has a new forecasting system and broader outreach. Companies and entrepreneurs are offering a wider array of safety equipment. And there’s never been a more robust array of technology offering maps and weather information highlighting avalanche hazards.
Put all that together — the growing center, the forecasts, the tools and the increased interest in avalanche education — “and that’s a community effort that is indicative of why you are not seeing the number of fatal accidents increasing alongside the increased use in the backcountry,” Greene said.
“But even though we are not seeing that correlation, anytime somebody gets hurt or killed in an avalanche it has a big impact on us,” said Greene, whose staff contributed to 15 different avalanche research projects last season. “We visit the places people die every year and we spend a lot of time trying to understand each situation and explain it all to people so they can avoid it. I think all this stuff together, that is what is producing a good outcome for us.”
Only recently have avalanche experts been able to track backcountry use. Increasing sales of alpine touring skis and boots, backcountry safety tools like avalanche transceivers, splitboards and snowshoes reveal the backcountry as one of the vibrant segments of the winter sports industry.
The Snowsports Industries America trade group’s most recent annual survey of 18,000 Americans shows the number of touring skiers reached a record 2.5 million in 2022-23. SIA estimates about a three-quarters of these skiers most often toured in the remote backcountry or out of ski area boundary gates, with a growing number climbing much-safer resort slopes. The trade group counted a record 2.2 million snowboarders using splitboards to tour, with nearly 80% exploring the backcountry. The number of people going snowshoeing reached a highest-ever 4.5 million in 2022-23.
All these numbers are up exponentially from the late 2000s, when the group counted a few thousand skiers a year buying alpine touring skis and splitboards.
The more than 600 attendees of the avalanche workshop are part of the reason why deaths are not skyrocketing alongside the growing number of people adventuring in avalanche terrain.
Here’s a few highlights from the workshop.
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Jason Konigsberg out of Leadville compared the connection between “whumpfs” and avalanches. Skiers hear whumpfs when there’s a loud collapse of snowpack in the backcountry, indicating a weakness that increases avalanche danger. Most skiers turn around when they hear a whumpf. But what about when there isn’t a whumpf but avalanche danger is high? That occurs when snowpack is deeper later in the season and Konigsberg recommended that avalanche forecasters maybe adjust messaging to better educate backcountry travelers about what to expect with and without whumpfing.
- New Mexico snow scientist Lindsey Rotche is developing a new way to map avalanche hazards. Her Human-Centered Avalanche Susceptibility Mapping program — she calls it H-CASM, like “chasm” — uses very high-resolution maps to better identify slope angles susceptible to slides. Her mapping program also includes variables like the slope aspect, distance to ridges that can be loaded with wind-driven snow, connected slopes that could slide and terrain traps, all of which need to be considered when exploring snowy mountains.
- Lucas Boyer with the National Weather Service delivered insight into how much water ended up with Southwest Colorado’s snowpack last season, setting records for the Uncompahgre, San Miguel and Dolores river basins. Don’t anticipate a replay this El Nińo winter, Boyer said. “For anyone expecting as much snow as we had last year, it’s going to be disappointing this year just because we had so much last year,” he said.
- Ron Simenhois, a CAIC forecaster in Leadville, gathered dozens of videos of avalanches to reproduce an avalanche simulation program. Using that program, he studied how vertical structures built in the loading zone of the Stanley avalanche path above U.S. Highway 40 on Berthoud Pass could stop a small avalanche from propagating into a massive, road-burying slide.
- Dave Richards, the avalanche program director at Utah’s Alta ski area, described the impact of 72 remote avalanche control devices in Little Cottonwood Canyon, including 19 at his ski area. As more highway departments and ski area avalanche programs move away from WWII artillery and firing explosives across valleys to control avalanches, the remote systems — like those used in starting zones above Loveland and Berthoud passes — are “the future of what we do in a lot of ways.”
- The Colorado Avalanche Information Center announced plans for a new outreach program to better study and communicate risks in avalanche terrain. The Snow Pool project — in partnership with Canada’s Simon Fraser University — will apply social science techniques to better share avalanche forecasts. The program is enlisting Colorado backcountry travelers to take user surveys and provide feedback on how they use the center’s forecasts. The hope is to “understand, improve and evolve our public risk communication,” Greene said.
Perhaps the most intriguing presentation was by Greene, who joined scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey on a four-year study of the historic two-week avalanche cycle in March 2019. There were more than 1,000 avalanches recorded across the state in that two-week span, 87 of them classified as D4, a destruction rating for an avalanche that “could destroy a railway car, a large truck, several buildings or a substantial amount of forest.”
In the nine years preceding the March 2019 slides, CAIC had recorded only 24 D4 slides. Some of the slide paths Greene studied included forest near Lake City where an avalanche ripped over a ridgeline and sheared the tops off three acres of trees 40 feet off the ground.
Greene and the USGS scientists have spent the last four summers collecting 1,288 tree ring samples from downed trees in 24 avalanche paths across the state. Hidden in those concentric circles is a history of the weather — and avalanches — dating back centuries.
“We were able to see avalanche events from the late 1600s through 2019,” Greene said.
Using newspaper reports from the previous massive avalanche cycle in 1899, the researchers were able to reconstruct an avalanche record using the tree rings. The avalanches in the 2019 cycle were as large or larger than the 1899 avalanches, Greene said.
Most revealing from the tree-ring study was the scientists’ theory that the tree rings reveal a decreasing likelihood of more catastrophic avalanche cycles.
“This work suggests that the probability of an avalanche cycle like this happening in Colorado over the last 100 years has slowly been decreasing,” Greene said. “But the two largest events that we see in the record also happened during that 100-year period. So that gives us some things to think about as we look toward the future. … There is certainly a lot of work being done in the climate change community that might be able to offer some answers.”