Colorado’s avalanche danger is highest in the nation

Skiers triggered this slide on Richmond Ridge near Aspen on Dec. 7. “It can be easy to underestimate the current avalanche potential. Conditions are hazardous or very hazardous in most of our mountains,” read a Dec. 7 update from CAIC. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

There is perhaps nothing more scenic than the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in winter. Yet our freshly snow-capped peaks are also the deadliest in the country.

Between the winters of 1950-51 and 2021-22, Colorado recorded 312 avalanche deaths, more than double the avalanche deaths in second- and third-tier states Alaska and Washington combined.

While this season is just beginning, a total of 492 avalanches and the first fatality have already been recorded, according to director Ethan Greene of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He says that’s a small fraction of the average of the 5,000 landslide events recorded in the state each year, a tally he says may only represent about 10% of actual landslides.

While avalanches aren’t new to Colorado, a triple threat of knowledge gaps, increased backcountry use, and climate change appear to be altering the risks. Unfortunately, it is difficult to calculate this changing risk per person, which arguably increases the risk for everyone.

The knowledge gap

Reports show that 80% of avalanche fatalities occur at risk levels marked as Considerable or Moderate. In comparison, only 20% of fatalities occur during periods of high avalanche risk. The decrease in deaths during high-risk times is mostly attributed to less use of the backcountry, perhaps especially by less experienced adventurers.

However, speaking with several search and rescue volunteers, there appear to be vast gaps in knowledge about how to assess considerable or moderate risk as designated by the CAIC. Specifically, users seem to mistakenly view these levels of risk as far less dangerous than they are, leading many users to be underprepared for the severity of the terrain they are on – if they are aware of the slippery slope.

Combined with a general lack of understanding of avalanches, including how they are triggered and how Colorado’s weather patterns are less consistent than in other regions, the result has made days with considerable or moderate risk much more deadly.

Increased backcountry use

In addition to lack of knowledge, more users means more education gaps, including not knowing if you are at risk. For example, a persistent myth seems to be that slides primarily impact skiers. This misunderstanding couldn’t be further from the truth, and recent avalanche incidents and fatalities involving snowshoers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and even hikers within minutes of a trail prove it.

According to Greene, the increased use of the backcountry is also impacting how avalanche parameters are collected and interpreted, making it more difficult overall to predict who, specifically, is at risk. New data challenges include the need to normalize data through increased use, determining updated estimates of the number of slips still unseen, and an overall shift in how increased human use equates to increased slips , given that 90% of avalanche deaths are related to human-triggered events.

Climate change

This variable is a doozy when it comes to predicting avalanches. While there are some things we can say for sure, there are still a lot of unknowns. For example, climate change will impact avalanches as the magnitude and frequency of extreme events will continue to increase as climate change worsens. According to Greene, this could complicate avalanche forecasting.

Determining exactly how, however, is difficult, especially since avalanche science is still relatively new and requires comparable funds for tools such as comprehensive snowpack modeling. For example, a drier fall could shorten the avalanche season. Yet the same drought could lead to a weaker base for more extreme events later in the season to become more catastrophic. These unknowns add more pieces to the puzzle, making it more difficult for forecasters and users to predict risk.

Know before you go

As scientists work to improve our ability to predict winter hazards in the mountains, there are steps all backcountry users can take to reduce the likelihood of being caught, buried or killed in a avalanche. Gary Foley, a senior member of Grand County Search and Rescue, says it can be as simple as, “Get the forecast, get the equipment, get the education.”

For Foley, that means starting with the free forecasting and education tools offered by CAIC, of ​​which Greene is the director, through the Know Before You Go program. The website offers avalanche danger levels by region, training videos and more.

“What’s important is that these introductory courses are often free,” says Foley. “Free of charge, you can do it in your living room. But that’s the introductory level of avalanche knowledge you should have before you start skiing in avalanche terrain.

From there, Foley suggests backcountry winter users take the appropriate level of avalanche training course, such as AIARE 1 or 2, or similar courses offered by local equipment stores. It then says to make sure you can carry and use the equipment.

Foley points out that while teams like his are qualified for backcountry rescues in record time, mate rescue has the best chance of saving lives. People buried in snow may only have 15 or 20 minutes before recovering to survive, and search parties may take 30 minutes or more depending on travel time and backcountry access. “Even with training,” he says, “we are a last resort.”

Foley’s final suggestion is to find a mentor before you go. “Have someone who can show you the real hands-on training. Someone experienced who can explain everything. Of course, he adds, avoiding avalanche terrain is always the best way to prevent an accident.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer, and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She is an avid climber and was a 2020 candidate for US Senate from Colorado.

Trish Zornio

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