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According to the CAIC there has been 11 avalanche related deaths in January. This is the largest number of avalanche-related deaths since at least 2001. The accidents have occurred in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Montana, and Alaska.
I called up Doug Chabot, the director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, to basically ask, “What the hell is happening?” What’s this deadly mix of conditions that’s killing skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers all over the West? “It’s kind of getting out of hand,” he told me. “We are seeing quite the cycle of human triggered avalanches right now, and they aren’t going naturally.” These avalanches are big, they’re human triggered, and they’re happening on steep slopes with hazardous terrain traps so the fatality rate has been extremely high.
So here’s the breakdown, paraphrased from the expert himself. The snowpack throughout the West, more specifically in the Rockies, is very similar right now (which explains why the same type of deadly slides are happening all over). “We’ve got depth hoar, sugary faceted snow at the ground. Depth hoar stays weak for a long time.” Chabot told me. It can take months for these weak layers deep in the snowpack to become strong again— it can even take the whole season. These weak layers formed in November resulting in tons of natural avalanches in December. After the new year, there was a dry spell, not a ton of snow going on. And as you all know, we skiers like snow. “So once it started snowing again, people started really getting after it, searching for turns even though this weak layer is still quite weak.”
This is the deadly equation: A “moderate” or “considerable” avalanche danger rating plus a big snowstorm following a dry spell. We also have to consider the fact that backcountry skiing is a growing industry so there is more pressure to go farther and steeper to find the untouched snow. “People are getting out on steep slopes and they’ve either been thinking that the snow is stable or they aren’t thinking about it. Moderate is not a green light.”
At a “moderate” rating, human triggered avalanches are possible, but too many people are associating the rating with stable conditions. The same thing is happening when the danger is “considerable.” Chabot wants to encourage people to study the description, photos, and videos on their avalanche center’s website as to optimize their understanding of the conditions. “Avalanche danger descriptors are just one word, so we really want people to the read the advisory— that’s what will have the life-saving information.”
“You can get away with a lot right now,” Chabot said. And that’s part of the issue. A lot of these slides are happening on slopes that had tracks already running down them. People see those tracks and think “safe,” but on those steep dangerous slopes, the reality is somebody just hasn’t hit the trigger point yet.
So what can you do? How do we stay safe?
Right now Chabot’s avalanche center is recommending that people stay off all steep slopes. “We are doing it,” he told. “We are being extremely conservative right now.”
“People should be calling their avalanche centers every day they go into the backcountry, they should look at the photos and videos we put online, and they need to take a class.” Chabot said.
The likelihood of human triggered avalanches has gone down, signs of instability are absent, so the best way to properly assess the conditions of a slope right now is to dig a pit.
Be safe out there, folks.