More WildSnow Geek News, and what about all those avalanches last winter?

Post by blogger | July 16, 2008      

I’ve been busier than a guy stripping skins during a rando race. Our new web hosting seems to have settled down, but questions have come up about it being robust enough to handle our mid-winter traffic. Getting our web hosting to work for for anticipated traffic involves a bunch of back-end tweaks for more efficiency — work that gets in the way of just sitting here blogging like I’m supposed to be doing.

Or I could pay someone manage our back office tech stuff and use up our advertising revenue for someone else’s paycheck. We’re in a funny place. Just large enough to have problems with server volume, but not large enough for the kind of ad revenue we need to compensate for expensive hosting. I guess it’s growing pains. To make it work I’ve got to keep going after the advertising. Apologies if the site is cluttered up as a result. Sometime before winter we’ll do a redesign for a cleaner look. And lets have a hand for the advertisers who are helping out! Click their banners to let them know you appreciate.

Meanwhile, some news items were worth a few keyboard strikes.

Whatever your opinion of animals vs people, you have to admit it’s interesting tracking the issue. This little tempest near San Diego, CA involves humans and toads. As we’re getting all to used to, the question is whether a few miles of road are that big a deal. At least the toads actually may be sensitive to such things. That’s better than prohibiting human recreation use due to the presence of tough populous (and sometime over populated) species such as elk, as happens all too often here in Colorado.

How about backcountry skiing news? I just got off the phone with Craig Dostie (former publisher of Couloir Mag). He’s working on an avy science article for Backcountry Magazine, and trying to get a sense of why this past season was our highest in avalanche deaths in a while, with a whopping 52 fatalities for North America. That’s our highest North American death count since winter of 2002-2003 (58 deaths), and one of our worst winters ever considering the numbers are significantly below that during many winters.

Craig asked me what I thought about this. Mostly, I noticed an obvious increase in the number of backcountry skiers last season. Our website traffic grew about 10%, and I saw quite a few more people out in the wild enjoying themselves. Thus, increased accidents could be a simple function of more people = more misfortune, with no net increase per capita.

Nonetheless, I believe I’ve noticed a trend of people being slightly less cautious (perhaps because of the numbers, packed skintracks, etc.), and this could be a factor as well. A good example of this would be an accident near Vail that involved a group deciding to ski known avalanche chutes during an unstable period, and unfortunately reaping the consequences.

More, one has to wonder if with increased numbers some of the new people lack experience. I’ll take no wild guess about that being a factor, and hope Craig can get a sense of it after taking the time to really dig into the stats. So look for his article in Backcountry Mag this winter. Should be good.

What do you guys think? Do we have more serious avy accidents simply because we’ve got more people? Or is there something else going on?


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19 Responses to “More WildSnow Geek News, and what about all those avalanches last winter?”

  1. Dongshow July 16th, 2008 2:32 pm

    Hmm, very interesting. I think a large part of it has to do with there simply being more people in the back country. Avalanches are always going to be an issue in the mountains, and the more crowded they become the more likely people are to get involved with them. I think crowding works in a number of ways too. This winter was the first time I’ve ever had the member of a party I was skiing with buried in an avalanche, and we were lucky it wasn’t 6 of us. We were skiing in an area we should have, an area we’d joked about going hours earlier, and fell for the trap of believing numerous ski tracks and one stable snow pit were a sign of stability. That and the excitement of really good snow could have done us in. Had it been a typically abandoned week day we most likely would have stuck to the lower trees as was planned, but the site of hoards of people skiing big open slopes changed our plans.

  2. Lynn July 16th, 2008 2:33 pm

    I think the media productions that we all watch are a contributing factor. Skiing/riding those amazing lines stirs something in us. It is rare that you see what goes on behind the scenes in the way of avy control, etc. in the videos.

    For the young, gung ho rider, he/she sees amazing lines and thinks “that can be me” and begins to search out that type of terrain. Many probably do not take into account where those shots are from, similar snowpack? Alaska is certainly different than Colorado, for example. Has there been control work done, etc..

    I think we are in an era where backcountry education is being replaced by the “eye candy” presented in videos. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching people ride those lines, but I have use my common sense, judgement and education when I ride the backcountry terrain I venture into.

    Access to many backcountry areas has increased with gates off ski areas and the ever present snowmobile. It seems logical that with more people out there, more incidents will occur.

    As a father with a teen who has been in the backcountry some with me, I feel a strong responsibility to continually remind him that you can have a lot of fun riding in areas that keep the avy risk low.

  3. Lou July 16th, 2008 3:24 pm

    Dongshow, I’ve fallen for that trap myself, though I do still feel that LOTS of tracks, I’m talking dozens wall-to-wall, can indicate it’s safe to make one more set in the same place, with the same start, one person at a time of course, and knowing the snowpack is generally stable overall and not hair-trigger deep slab.

    But the only semi-sure bet is that it has to be lots of ski tracks DURING AND AFTER EVERY new snow accumulation. To see a bowl with 10 sets of tracks and assume that makes it safe is a good way to get killed. This is counter intuitive, as what can’t be seen is more important than the obvious.

  4. Dongshow July 16th, 2008 3:51 pm

    Good point Lou. I still agree about ski tracks, and your spot on with the what can’t be seen point. I think the biggest thing i’ve learned this season is to understand our own limitations. For example, a snow pit is never going to tell you what’s going on 12 feet under the surface. There is a huge picture and it’s difficult/impossible to grasp it exactly given the various small glimpses we get. Your never above risk i guess.

  5. Lou July 16th, 2008 4:09 pm

    I’m not that impressed with snow pits, to say the least. It’s incredibly tough to dig them in the right places, like out in the middle of an avalanche starting zone…

  6. Dongshow July 16th, 2008 4:25 pm

    yea, i’ll agree with that. I like using them in a couple areas though, I think when done consistently, yes in starting zones, I get a much better idea of what’s going on over the course of a season.

    Interested to hear what you think of another habit, cornice dropping. The site of a couple hundred pounds bouncing can be reassuring, but in a similar way to ski tracks maybe?

  7. MtnMentsh July 16th, 2008 5:03 pm

    At least up here in Washingtion, which had it’s share of the avy tradgedies this year, we had an abnormal, for us, snowpack. Usually the heavy wet snow in the cascades is pretty reliable but this year we had some persistent weak layers that caught people with bad habits. I think there is something to the thought that the growing popularity of the sport has brought new people that are behind the learning curve as well but perhaps the whole climate change thing is also introducing supprises to people who think they know their homecourt snowpack like the back of their hands.

  8. Lou July 16th, 2008 5:16 pm

    Yeah, luckily our snowpack was more stable than normal here in Colorado, but who knows if that will be a trend.

  9. hunter July 16th, 2008 5:33 pm

    More people certainly leads to more avy incidents, but I think that the fact that snow science is still rather uncertain, especially with the changing snowpack resulting from changing climate fluctuations also exacerbates the danger for backcountry skiers. Even inbounds avalanches seem to be increasing. 2 of the 4 avies I’ve been in (or started) over the years where inbounds, and the first one buried me up to my nostrils on Buddy’s Run at Steamboat at 3 pm when I was a kid, so you just never know (It got a few Texans as well, which made me feel a bit better about the humiliation of being caught in a slide!). I go out with the assumption that everything I see can slide and plan that it will slide. Better safe than sorry.

  10. ArthurDent July 16th, 2008 6:46 pm

    Lou, first of all, as this is my first post, thanks for a great blog. I’ve been a reader for a while, and you inspired me to create my own this past season.

    Back on topic, one thing I’d like to add is not only was this one of the worst avalanche accident years in North America, but it seems like the majority of the badness occurred pre-February.

    In April, I wrote up a bit on it here:

    …The writeup basically compares the early season statistics year by year to past histories. This year ended with 77 percent (!) of the fatalities occuring before Feb 1.

    Most years (with the exception of 1997-1998) have only about half the accidents occuring pre-Feb, which makes sense, since Nov-Dec-Jan is about half the ‘unstable’ season time-wise.

    Overall, with new uninformed skiers it seems like we would have an even distribution throughout the season, that is, it just being due to more people. But we didn’t.

    So for me, this points to either poor early season snow conditions (from climate change or whatever, as WA might have experienced) or my totally biased ‘chomping at the bit’ theory. Just my two cents.

  11. Lou July 16th, 2008 7:50 pm

    Hi Arthur, thanks for your first comment! We have a nice community here of folks who contribute an amazing amount of good ideas and info to WildSnow, so thanks for joining!

    I agree with your theory about folks being agro, but I think just the increased numbers are mostly to blame for more accidents. As they say, find the simplest explanation and it’s probably the correct one.

  12. Scotsman July 16th, 2008 10:26 pm


    We had a lot of deaths in WA where I live. I was personaly involved in the recent search conducted by some volunteers from the Turns-all-Year website for the three missing snowboarders in the Crystal backcountry. See link to thread.

    We found them in bivvy bags and they had been smothered by a large avalanche that had presumably come down during the night while they where sleeping. When we found them they where still buried after 6 months and we where lucky to be able to give the families closure.

    A lot of the deaths we had where early in the season and a lot where snowshoers or hikers who just didn’t recognise the danger. Avalanche awarness in the skiing community seems to be growing in my opinion but for snowshoers, hikers and snowmobiliers the awarness level doesn’t seem to be there.

    A group of us up here are trying to get REI to include a tag with all their snowsport equip and clothing giving contacts to the local avalanche center.
    It was a sobering winter brought home by the deaths of the three snowboarders who we searched for and found.

  13. ray b. July 17th, 2008 8:11 am

    my perspective from the front range…

    sure, more people will naturally and in an obvious way add shock value to the basic “number of deaths per year” trend line. you have a good point, lou, regarding how this increase is reflected in the change in rate of deaths. i think we will move into a trend of more potent exogenous factors (that is, not the usual weather, snowpack, terrain that have driven “baseline” trends historically).

    with some friends and just overhearing other enthusiasts’ discussions as they prepare for the bc (or side-country in many cases), i experience a general sense of acceptance that, once the gear is purchased, assembled, and somehow attached to the body, there is a common delusion that some mystical shroud of protection suddenly forms. in many, many cases, they might just have one out of three main pieces of gear…seems to be the beacon that really makes em feel safe. if you’re up for it, you can get some pretty interesting reactions to a question like “ok, so if/when you pinpoint your friend, how will you dig him out?”.

    having some economic analytics under my belt, i’d be interested in somehow controlling for pricing points of beacons, probes and shovels over the next five years. intuitively, i would think that if we see any major drops in relative price, we’ll see a rate increase that is sustained. that would be one sadistic economic experiment for some avy sci grad. adding to this, lowering any other barriers to entry into the bc experience — e.g., binding advancements/lower costs, a major access road opens up some year for easier access, an outerwear company develops the ultimate bc travel suit — will have a similar effect.

    around here, i’m old school because i went to school (just a solid avy I class in silverton). one of the most basic but important things i learned was to not get caught in an avalanche — at all costs, even that of a powder run. i suppose since i solo a lot that point is life-critical.

    peace, ray

    (reference note: my typical front range groups are of four to six people, day trippers, each usually gets out three out of four weekends during the winter and spring. others’ perspectives gathered at th’s and lift rides at arapahoe basin ski area — people heading to sidecountry from there). perspectives time period 1998 through the present.

  14. Jeff July 17th, 2008 10:08 am

    I think the gear has evolved in such a manner that MORE people are pushing the terrain. Sure, people have been killin’ it and pushing extreme descents for a long-time, but now you have these lines getting skied every year. Avalanche recurrance intervals on these slide paths haven’t changed…just the probability that a group will be skiing it when it does release. I think thats why we are see more avi accidents/deaths. My two cents…

  15. Tyler July 17th, 2008 10:18 am

    I would caution against reading too much into year-to-year increases in fatalities/injuries. While there are undoubtedly more people in the backcountry than before–and yes, many of them are doing stupid things–it wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in avy statistics. A very similar debate to this one exists commercial fishing and the merchant marine in regards to risk and injury, but talking about things on a year-to-year basis (rather than a long term trend) skews perception. One or two large fisher/processor boats sink and all of a sudden the fatality rate is 50% higher than the year before. But, is the job really any more dangerous? Not really, but through random chance and bad luck and poor decision making by crews and it looks as though it is. I think the same logic can be applied here; compositing avy deaths from all around the west (including different variables of weather, snowpack, moisture, wind….you get the point) into a single statistic is to aggregate something that isn’t necessarily appropriate and very hard to interpret.

    Anyhow, sorry everyone to get all nerdish. As a “stats-nerd” and a backcountry skier i tend to go off on tangents on topics like this. Talking about this is far more pleasing than actually getting work done.

  16. lotsofsnow July 17th, 2008 11:10 am

    I was thinking it had something to do with the generous snowcover over all of North America. Didn’t the 2007-08 winter season have the largest (most widespread) snow cover in North America since the 1960’s? In many areas, it was also an amazing year for low elevation (i.e. easier access) skiing, with many lines being skied that have been unskiable for long periods of time. In addition to this, the Northwest had unusual weather and snowpack, and as a result, unusual avalanches and a large number of fatalities for that region.

    Just some other thoughts.

  17. Randonnee July 17th, 2008 2:49 pm

    Before releasing my hot air, I will say that I hope that backcountry skiers study the problem, experience the problem- go kick some slabs (safely), and stay out of trouble while enjoying great powder skiing.

    My view is that enough knowledge and enough current data is easily available to prevent avalanche entrainment nearly all of the time when combined with self-restraint. Social/ behavioral dynamics are the cause for nearly all recreational avalanche accidents.

    As I have written before, my view is that most backcountry winter recreationists appear to have little ability to avoid avalanche entrainment, their doing so is mostly luck. The snowpack is often stable, unknowing individuals travel on avalanche terrain, then to their surprise one day may get caught when true hazard exists. They then may speak of the problem as something that is surprising or mysterious. Since the snowpack is mostly stable, improper conclusions may occur as a result of luck allowing the avoidance of avalanche entrainment, for the most part.

    My views are based on considerable avy control experience and backcountry travel. Thousands of days in my life on avy terrain so far confirm my views and conclusions.

    Actually, I often feel safer skiing avy terrain with hazard alone since I am not distracted or influenced by those less experienced and therefore make clear and conservative decisions. For those who may comment that I am a fool to do so alone, I would say the decision is practically the same even if one has partners. In other words, if one is entrained in a significant avalanche it may matter little if one is alone or if someone is there to share the horror of your death. Clearly, surviving and being rescued does not fit into the previous provocative statement, I make that statement for illustrative purposes.

    In closing, I will wish for all to make excellent, safe decisions while skiing many days of excellent powder snow!

  18. Lou July 17th, 2008 7:01 pm

    Interesting take Rando, thanks. Agree about how folks get lulled by not having problems, when sometimes that’s just because of good luck. Don’t know about the skiing alone part (your rhetorical “provocative” statement), though. Having a partner can make a small mistake inconsequential, while being alone can make that same mistake mean your life. But it’s got to be the right partner.

  19. David July 18th, 2008 8:39 am

    A lot of good points above.

    I thought Karl Klassen’s article about PWL’s was very interesting. Some years the snow itself is trickier.

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