Beware the Backcountry: Why the West’s avalanche season was so deadly

Beware the Backcountry: Why the West’s avalanche season was so deadly

By Jacob Monkarsh Indy Staff Writer

Thursday, April 1, 2021 | Number of views (11252)

Backcountry skiers, snowboarders, and all types of winter outdoor recreationists are aware of the strange and fatal winter that the western U.S. has been having. 


According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website at press time, there have been 33 backcountry deaths this year in the U.S., with 11 of those occurring in Colorado.


This has been one of the deadliest backcountry seasons on record and there has definitely been a weird air around backcountry recreation this winter.


Andy Gleason is a Fort Lewis College professor who has an extensive background working as an avalanche forecaster for the CAIC, and is now conducting research for NASA’s “SnowEx” project. 


“This year we had a lot of snow early, a little bit in October and a bunch in November, and then it didn’t snow again for a long time,” Gleason said. 


What happened is that snow changed and faceted, resulting in a very weak snowpack, Gleason said. This alone is dangerous, but it wouldn’t be as dangerous if there were a large amount of snow on top of that layer, he said. 


Unfortunately, Colorado has not received that large amount of snow over the weak, original layer, and that has led to an increased number of avalanches in the backcountry, Gleason said. 


“Avalanches occur when the stress of new snow on top overcomes the strength of the packed snow below it,” Gleason said.


It often can take only one person, such as a skier, to traverse over that top layer and trigger an avalanche, he said.


“When there is a heavy snowfall, the most dangerous time to ski is 24-48 hours after the snowfall because the snowpack hasn’t adjusted yet,” Gleason said. “Most avalanches occur during that period.”


While these conditions are unusual, the San Juan region has seen weaker snowpacks and conditions like these before, Gleason said. 


What Gleason hasn’t seen before though, is the large number of deaths occuring in the backcountry that we have had this year, he said.


According to the CAIC website, the CAIC avalanche danger rating system consists of five different warning levels: Level 1 (low), level 2 (moderate), level 3 (considerable), level 4 (high) and level 5 (extreme).


“While these are on a five-point scale, they aren’t linear and a level three warning means that you are likely to trigger an avalanche,” Gleason emphasized. A large amount of the season in Colorado has been spent in “considerable” avalanche danger, he said. 


Considerable avalanche danger is defined on the CAIC website as, “dangerous avalanche conditions,” making careful snowpack evaluations, cautious route finding, and conservative decision-making essential.


The CAIC website also shows that while under the considerable danger level, human-triggered avalanches are likely.


People have been out and skiing backcountry during level 3 danger, which could be a reason for the higher number of fatalities, Gleason said. 


Leland Kohere is a sales associate at Pine Needle Mountaineering and the interim executive director of the avalanche awareness non-profit, Friends of the San Juans (FOSJ).


Being a backcountry skier himself, Kohere finds that he has been impacted by this year’s snowpack and that he isn’t able to ski the lines that he would normally want to. He’s been stuck on lower angle, rather than steeper more intense terrain, skiing what he calls “low angle pow.” 


“This year’s especially dangerous season is on everybody’s mind,” he said. 


Friends of the San Juans is a nonprofit organization that, according to its mission statement, provides “avalanche awareness and education for winter backcountry users in the San Juan Mountains.” 


As a member and executive director of FOSJ, Kohere said that the importance and need for a grassroots organization pushing avalanche awareness has really been seen this season.


Avalanche awareness education is something that is at the forefront of conversations about the backcountry this year. “If you look at the backcountry deaths this year, a lot of them are older, more experienced backcountry users,” Kohere said. 


Josh Kling is an FLC alumni, certified American Mountain Guide Association guide, and now permitting and programming coordinator at Outdoor Pursuits, a program at FLC that rents out outdoor gear, takes students on trips, and encourages safe practices in the outdoors.


Kling said that he hasn’t seen anything out of the ordinary and OP has issued a standard amount of backcountry gear this season. In town, Kohere also echoed similar sentiments, saying that Pine Needle has rented out a solid amount of gear, but nothing crazy unusual.


“OP has still been running backcountry trips this season,” Kling said. “The only thing that has changed has been the terrain that we are able to access.”


“It’s definitely a bit more sensitive this year,” Kling said. “But this year has also been a great educational opportunity, an OP-run avalanche safety programs are really hitting home.”


According to Kling, OP offers the full spectrum of avalanche education. This includes a two hour Know Before You Go avalanche awareness clinic, and a 1.5 day avalanche awareness clinic. 


They also offer American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education Companion Rescue Courses and AIARE Recreational courses from a beginner level, all the way up to a professional level avalanche course in partnership with the American Avalanche Institute.


This allows for students to have a full progression from total novice “never-have-I-ever” to the aspiring professional.


The OP staff also meets every morning before they go out into the backcountry to go over a “run list,” Kling said. 


“The run list is a detailed list of ski runs, no different than at a resort,” Kling said. “We talk about what is open to skiing as well as closed for each day we go out. This way, when we are in the field and have mad-pow-disease we are making good decisions regardless of how amazing and fun a certain run might look.” 


Kling emphasized the value of avalanche education and encouraged everyone who is going out into the backcountry to get educated. 


The coronavirus pandemic has added some interesting layers to this year’s backcountry predicament. Ski resorts around the country have put into place capacity limits, reservation requirements, increased lift ticket prices, and many in the backcountry community have been, as Kling told me, “chomping at the bit” to get out into off-piste terrain. 


Despite the best efforts of organizations like OP and Friends of the San Juans who focused on backcountry safety and education, a recent study from CAIC found that the trend of more deaths in the backcountry was driven not by inexperienced skiers on the terrain but from more experienced, or expert skiers navigating the abnormal conditions. 


On February 1, three skiers were killed in a slide outside of Ophir, just a 20-minute drive north of SIlverton. According to CAIC’s investigation of the incident, it was later “determined the signal came from a single avalanche transceiver that was over 10 years old.” CAIC reported that the skiers had been skiing together in the area for more than a decade. 


Kling says that this winter’s dynamic suggests that some backcountry users this year may be operating in somewhat of “an expert halo” and acting like they are immune to the dangers of this year. 


“People tend to ski in the same spots for years and years and for maybe 19 of 20 years you won’t see avalanches on a slope,” Gleason said. “Skiers who ski the same lines over and over for years think they can get away with it and that it won’t slide where they ski.”


Gleason went on, “That doesn’t mean it can’t slide.”


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