Avalanche forecasters on alert after deadly month
January 28, 2016
A series of snowstorms and hordes of young, enthusiastic Winter X Games fans, scheduled to converge on Friday, are barreling down on Aspen.
Colorado avalanche forecasters hope that skiers and riders take the time to educate themselves about conditions if they are thinking of backcountry travel, and that they avoid adding tragedy to an already deadly month.
Ten people died in avalanches across the western U.S. on the 10 days starting Jan. 16, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Spencer Logan. That is an "unusually bad" number of incidents clustered into a short period, he wrote in a blog on the CAIC website.
"The 11 fatalities in a single month is the largest number of fatalities in January since 2008, when 19 people died in avalanches," Logan wrote. "The winter of 2007-08 was one of the worst seasons for avalanche fatalities in the last 65 years."
The victims in the latest cluster ranged from skiers caught in a slide just outside of Jackson Hole resort to a snowmobiler in Montana, and from skiers in Washington to a snowmobiler near Crested Butte.
"We've had two fatalities in the last 10 days in Colorado. That's not unusual for us," Logan said in an interview.
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The incidents were spread over too broad of a geographic area to be explained by a widespread weather pattern, Logan said. No information was available on avalanche conditions at each site at the time of the incidents.
"In the U.S. most of the avalanche deaths occur when conditions are considerable," Logan said. "In Colorado, it's when conditions are moderate."
That's what sends up a red flag regarding conditions across most of Colorado right now.
"Moderate — we're not seeing the screaming signs of instability," Logan said. So backcountry adventurers might be emboldened to explore more terrain. They might get lucky, Logan said, and not experience a problem. That builds confidence and can inspire further exploration. Then they can stumble into a pocket of instability and disaster can strike.
Blase Reardon, CAIC forecaster for the Aspen zone, said the recent fatal slides in Colorado and elsewhere show that size of slopes doesn't matter nor does being close to a road or ski area.
"Many accidents occur on small, lower elevation slopes that don't look as scary as big mountain faces but they're often more deadly," he said.
His concern is heightened because a series of storms is heading into the area, coinciding with an influx of skiers and riders for the X Games.
Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass all have high-elevation gates to the backcountry that can prove enticing to skiers, even those unfamiliar with the terrain. That easily accessible backcountry, often referred to as sidecountry, can prove deadly.
"In the Aspen area, most fatal avalanche accidents involve parties that leave the ski area boundaries and enter avalanche terrain, sometimes unknowingly" Reardon said. "Just because a slope is close doesn't mean it's safe."
The sidecountry is often dominated by gullies that are surrounding by trees. It gives the false impression of safety. That's exactly the type of terrain Reardon is advising skiers and riders to avoid during this next approaching storm cycle starting late Friday.
CAIC's statistics show just how deadly the sidecountry has been in Aspen over the last 18 years. In the U.S., about 15 percent of avalanche fatalities occur when a skier or rider leaves the slopes of a resort for the backcountry, Logan said. For Colorado, the figure rises to 22 percent of all fatal slides.
But in the Aspen zone, 11 of 20 avalanche deaths since 1998 have been in terrain just outside the three big ski areas.
CAIC focuses on statistics since the late 1990s because backcountry travel started to climb with advances in equipment.
The Aspen zone avalanche danger was rated moderate as of Wednesday afternoon, but Reardon said that could change quickly heading into the weekend and during what appears to be a "wet week" to start February.
He urged anyone venturing into the backcountry — and especially visitors from out of town who aren't familiar with the terrain — to check CAIC's forecasts at http://avalanche.state.co.us/forecasts/backcountry-avalanche/aspen/.
"There are a few simple actions that can prevent many avalanche accidents or minimize their potentially deadly consequences," he said. "These are pretty basic, but they work: Carrying avalanche gear — beacon, shovel, probe — and more and more people are using air bag packs; practice using all that equipment; getting field-based avalanche training; and then using the forecast to avoid dangerous terrain."