February most deadly avalanche month
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Avalanche forecasters around Colorado are warily eying the backcountry snowpack, concerned that warming temperatures and clearing skies could lead to a spike in serious accidents in the coming weeks.
February historically sees the highest number of avalanche deaths, based on statistics dating to 1950. And this winter’s steady snows have built a tender snowpack that is prone to big slides.
“I’m walking on eggshells,” said Ethan Green, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “The avalanches we’re seeing are getting bigger and bigger. It’s amazing more people haven’t been killed.”
So far this season, five people have died in avalanches, one less than the annual average of six. Around the country, 23 people have died since mid-December, surpassing last year’s total and leading to concerns that there could a record number of deaths this winter.
Green said backcountry snow riders can expect to see avalanches that haven’t slid in a long time. And even regular slides will run bigger and longer than anytime in recent memory.
Some experts are especially concerned about a sudden rise in the number of accidents among skiers and snowboarders who use ski resort chairlifts to get to out-of-bounds terrain.
“You have to go back a whole generation, to the 1980s, to find out-of-area accidents,” said former avalanche forecaster Dale Atkins. “Now, suddenly again, one-third of all accidents are out-of-area skiers.
“This is the kind of winter when even experienced people can get in trouble,” Atkins continued.
Aspen-based forecaster Brian McCall said he expects the danger rating to remain high across most of the state, and said the danger could climb even higher with a warm-up.
“The main message should be, stay inbounds,” said Patti Burnett, a rescue dog handler who has participated in many grim searches and body recovery efforts over the years. “The skiing is so excellent,”
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