It’s going to be a glorious winter out in the backcountry—but before you get too cocky, dig into these all-important stats on avalanches and how to stay safe out there.
It’s early winter, when Ma Nature starts to layer the Colorado backcountry with sparkling white dendrites of snow, precious snow! And that means Colorado’s backcountry skiers will start chomping at the bit to slap on skins, hike, and make turns. But the state’s Rocky Mountain snowpack can be fickle, making out-of-bounds shussing safely…tricky. In the 2018-19 season, Colorado led the U.S. in avalanche fatalities. Here’s more on what that means and how you can stay safe, with data from avalanche expert Dale Atkins, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and Snowsports Industries of America (SIA).
Number of backcountry ski tourers who died between 1950 and 2017 nationwide, with 251 snowmobilers a close runner up. From the 2008-09 season to the 2016-17 season, however, snowmobilers jumped to the top of the list of winter users who die, with 88, and backcountry tourers dropped to second, with 79.
The decade during which avalanche fatalities caused by people backcountry skiing, out-of-bounds skiing, and climbing exploded in Colorado.
409 DOCUMENTED DEATHS
Number of documented fatal avalanche accidents in Colorado between 1859 and 2006, according to a paper written by Dale Atkins (read it here bit.ly/2kR9T7x). These slides claimed at least 693 lives, but not all were skiers. When prospectors started coming to Colorado in the 1850s, avalanches were their nemesis in more ways than one. In 1859, for example, prospector Horace Tabor lost a gold mining claim to rumors of avalanches told to him by a fellow prospector. His wife Augusta, fearful of avalanches, made Horace move back to the safety of Golden City for the winter. After he left, the prospector jumped Tabor’s claim, and poor Tabor never retrieved that mother lode. But people also died in avalanches while traveling by horse-drawn sleigh over mountain roads, skiing the mail to remote communities and just while going about their daily lives in their cabins, when avalanches roared through and obliterated them and the buildings.The standardized, three-day intro to avalanche hazard management course anyone wanting to travel in the backcountry in winter should take—regardless of whether they’re skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, or, in some instances, fat biking. The AIARE standardized course teaches recreators how to develop a plan for travel in avalanche terrain, how to identify avalanche terrain, how to effectively manage risks in making terrain choices in a group setting and how to execute a companion rescue.
Avy Level 1
The standardized, three-day intro to avalanche hazard management course anyone wanting to travel in the backcountry in winter should take—regardless of whether they’re skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, or, in some instances, fat biking. The AIARE standardized course teaches recreators how to develop a plan for travel in avalanche terrain, how to identify avalanche terrain, how to effectively manage risks in making terrain choices in a group setting and how to execute a companion rescue.
People who died in avalanches in Colorado between 1950 and 2017, 124 people more than any other state. However, there is no way to determine the total number of people caught or buried each year, because most non-fatal avalanche incidents are not reported.
The year that standardized avalanche education curriculum came to the United States, via The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) in Gunnison, Colorado. Although the American Avalanche Association (A3) had published avalanche course guidelines, there was no nationally recognized curriculum before this, says AIARE. Co-founded by Jean Pavillard and Karl Klassen, set about creating standardized education, just as backcountry recreation was becoming increasingly popular. Today, the organization provides avalanche education to more backcountry travelers than any other single avalanche education organization in the United States, with recreational avalanche courses, pro level courses and instructor training courses designed for anyone recreating in the backcountry.
Zero to very little
Data showing enrollment numbers and trends in avalanche education. This is a shame, says an avy professional who requested anonymity, because there would be a lot to reflect upon in terms of the demographics of students taking courses, trends in enrollment over the years, and the attrition rate for recreationalists coming back to take a Level 2 course.
People killed in an era called “Inter-war” in Atkins’ CAIC study, meaning the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Atkins attributes the low number to a lack of cars and open roads, making the mountains inaccessible. This started to change in the mid-1930s, when small ski runs with rope tows opened up across the mountains. Some skiers dove in, but World War II meant the new industry would have to wait another decade.
One day earlier, 2019
Day we hope to be skiing this season.
84, 18, & 24
Percentages, respectively, that sales of alpine touring bindings, alpine touring boots, and backcountry accessories—including avalanche transceivers—rose between 2017 and 2018 nationwide.
October 13, 2018
Unofficial start of last year’s ski season, when Wolf Creek started spinning its lifts.
Avy Level 2
A course that builds on Avy Level 1 courses with a three-day immersive program that provides backcountry leaders the opportunity to advance their avalanche knowledge and decision making skills by applying their skills to new terrain and situations.