The Year of the Avalanche

January 18, 2009

It seems as though the 2008/2009 winter is destined to go down in infamy as one of the deadliest years on record - and it’s only mid-January. Each week has brought another story of lost skiers, nasty falls, bizarre equipment failures, and massive avalanches.

Just this past weekend, another snowmobiler in British Columbia lost his life to an avalanche, bringing the total in Canada to 16 avalanche related deaths this season. The American total stands at 14 following two separate events on Saturday, putting us halfway to the US average of 28 deaths per season… and “avalanche season”, per se, is still a couple of months off.

Unusually Poor Snowpack Conditions

The main contributor to this seasons’ frequent avalanche events has undoubtedly been the poor snowpack which has plagued much of the west. While the ample snowfall over the past month has made for great conditions, the off and on switch between rain and sub-zero temperatures earlier in the season has created an unstable base on which every inch of new snow sits.

While experienced backcountry enthusiasts who are well versed in avalanche awareness can typically judge whether or not a slope is at risk of sliding, the particularly bad conditions this season have made predicting even more difficult. Slopes that have been stable and not avalanched in decades have been the sites of some of the seasons’ worst slides.

The Move Out of Bounds

Another factor contributing to the high number of deaths is the relative inexperience of the average backcountry enthusiast. Areas that were once reserved for carefully planned trips by seasoned professionals have seen an influx of less experienced skiers, particularly in the last couple of years as backcountry equipment has moved more into the mainstream. The fat skis and touring bindings that are now commonplace at every neighborhood ski shop have likely helped to lure skiers through the gates in search of better snow. Unfortunately, a lack of education on prevention and rescue techniques has left many of these people unprepared to avoid or respond to avalanche events when they have occurred.

You Aren’t Always Safe In Bounds

Aside from the high number of avalanche related deaths so early in the season, the fact that several of these incidents occurred in the bounds of major ski resorts has helped to attract the attention of skiers, riders, and the mainstream media. Major retailers are reporting surges in the sale of avalanche beacons, and it seems as though resorts are going the extra mile to impress upon their visitors the seriousness of the danger present upon many slopes right now.

Most people who regularly ski or ride larger resorts with avalanche prone areas agree that avalanche danger is taken pretty seriously. If being awoken to the sound of bombs going off up in the hills isn’t enough to remind you of the real danger avalanches pose, the backcountry access gates, ample signage and newly adopted ski area boundary policies that litter most mountains should provide ample warning.

Protecting Yourself

Apart from the obvious - obeying posted warnings when you are in bounds, always skiing with other people, and carefully considering your decisions when outside the boundaries of a resort - the best thing you can do to prevent being a victim of an avalanche is to spend time learning about prevention and response.

Many (not all, but many) of the deaths that have occurred this season could have been prevented if the parties involved knew how to judge the relative danger a slope poses of sliding. Careful judgments in the context of the dangerous conditions that exist this season probably would have discouraged at least some of these individuals from venturing off the beaten path.

While many people seem to have gone the route of running out and buying transceivers, it’s worth mentioning how little value a transceiver has in the hands of someone who hasn’t practiced with it many, many times. Even many of the newest and best devices have a steep learning curve - so make sure that everyone in your group has spent a lot of time practicing before relying on a transceiver in the backcountry.

Photo courtesy of VancityAllie via Flickr.