EXCEPTIONAL — POSSIBLY NO SKIER AVALANCHE DEATHS COLORADO 2015-2016


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | June 16, 2016      

Clearly, no one wanted to jinx this streak by writing about it. Now it’s the middle of June with what’s left of the Colorado snowpack transitioning to summer snow patches (with a few places at altitude on north faces that could still be dangerous during thaws). So I’ll break the wall and say, THIS IS WONDERFUL, BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING — it appears no skiers or snowboarders died in avalanches. (Though one skier avalanche victim may still be missing, search is ongoing. If that’s the case, while tragic, we still have a stunning reduction in skier fatalities for this past season and I’ll edit accordingly. Also, please note that the term “skiers” in this blog post refers also to snowboarders.)

Red line is 5-year average for US avalanche deaths, notice how it sharply climbs around 1992, then levels off remarkably for the past

Screen Grab from CAIC website. Red line is 5-year average for US avalanche deaths, notice how it sharply climbs around 1992 to 1998 then appears to level off, remarkably so considering the explosion in avalanche terrain recreation we’ve seen over the past 15 years.

Yes, we did have a better than average snowpack in terms of stability. Sometimes much better than average. Yet we had plenty of dicy periods, plenty of bad layers, plenty of danger.

So credit where credit is due.

To all of you backcountry skiers out there in Colorado who took care with your route finding, dialed your risk levels, traveled well equipped, educated yourselves and otherwise practiced what were obviously high levels of avalanche danger awareness, CONGRATULATIONS!

To the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: You guys work hard, keeping us aware of the danger but also supporting avalanche safety education in numerous ways. CONGRATULATIONS!

To all the avalanche educators out there. Guides, school teachers, mentors, your caring concern for reducing the awful tragedy of untimely death is so appreciated by so many of us. CONGRATULATIONS!

One interesting thing is that back in March, avalanches had killed 23 people in the United States. According to the CAIC, this was second largest number of cumulative fatalities through February since the winter of 2000-01. The usual Colorado winter could have bumped that up to even more tragic levels, and while we did have 3 Colorado snowmobilers and 1 climber lose their lives, skiers may have contributed no numbers to the grim metric (which overall at 4 deaths was still tragic, and “average” considering the past three decades or so.)

Perhaps most importantly (considering only 3 deaths and no skier fatalities) is that the numbers of recreationists using Colorado avalanche terrain has been exploding in double digit percentages for a number of years now — with what has obviously been a doubling time (based on cars parked at trailheads) of around 7 years. Avalanche accidents have not kept pace to the degree many of us expected. There has been an increase, but if we’d had the same doubling in fatalities we’d be looking at what a napkin calc tells me would be something like 20 people a year dying in Colorado.

I dug in to some stats specific to Colorado, it appears our last year with no avalanche Colorado fatalities (of any sort) was 1969, before then there were a few other “clean” years along with a steady march of around 3 victims a year. The last season with no skier deaths was 2003-2004 according to Dale Atkins (see comments). Things went along fairly well after that, then an alarming upsurge occurred after 2010, leading to the horrible year of 2013 with 9 Colorado avalanche deaths. That’s far from 20+ that my informal math would predict, and now we have a winter when no skier perished. Beautiful.

Indeed, over the whole U.S., fatalities climbed sharply from 1991 to about 1996 then leveled off during a period of concurrent growth in outdoor winter recreation (see image above). Something was clearly happening. In my view, that “something” has been a remarkable convergence of knowledge, gear, and less quantifiable human factors such as caution and judgement.

Sidenote, regarding the obvious preponderance of snowmobiler avalanche accidents: It’s tempting for skiers to sniff at snowmobilers as having less avalanche safety savvy, as they do get involved in avy accidents all too frequently. Such might be justified regarding sledders who don’t carry basic safety gear and do things like center punching a high-mark on a day with elevated hazard — but hold on. Remember that while a human powered ski tourer might encounter just a few avalanche slopes in a day, a snowmachiner might touch hundreds. That’s a big deal, and changes the whole picture for how we skiers should regard the prevalence of snowmachine avalanche accidents. Like it or not, some of this is an odds game and drawing lots of cards means the joker will eventually face up. We all should keep that in mind.

Check out our other articles covering avalanche safety.

http://avalanche.state.co.us/accidents/colorado/

http://avalanche.state.co.us/accidents/statistics-and-reporting/

Article about Colorado rider who may have perished in avalanche, but is still missing.

Comments

14 Responses to “EXCEPTIONAL — POSSIBLY NO SKIER AVALANCHE DEATHS COLORADO 2015-2016”

  1. Lisa Dawson June 16th, 2016 10:05 am

    Wonderful news indeed!

  2. Charlie Hagedorn June 16th, 2016 10:39 am

    Awesome. :). Thanks for pointing out good news!

  3. John June 16th, 2016 11:27 am

    Great news Lou. I thought it would be my second calendar year without an avy.
    This would have then been the first season going way back without one. I had lost count years ago. Fortunately in those years whether the slides were triggered intentionally, unintentionally knowing one could go, or just caught off guard.
    I can still say no one in my party has ever been knocked down!
    A friend in I were skiing a N facing couloir on a Considerable day in April. It was steep with nice pillow drops into the couloir. He skied with minimal sluff, and stopped to spot from the edge of some old growth trees while I spotted him from above. We had radios with speaker mic’s. I jumped in and the whole bowl surface fractured about 18′ deep. I stuck to my landing spot and skied the side of the couloir that went as an unconsolidated slab. The ride side went to the bottom as a consolidated slab. Same couloir, that spatial variability thing, split down the middle.
    The 2 adjacent couloir also went remotely.
    Interesting thing was the difference in speed an depths of the debris piles left by the unconsolidated portion vs. the consolidated. The consolidated side traveled at high speed and left a tall debris pile with a clean hard layer underneath the path it traveled.
    The unconsolidated side move much slower, traveled the same distance, but left along low debris pile. This couloir was maybe 30 feet wide. It pays to be aware, and have a plan, oh, and separation.

  4. Steve June 16th, 2016 12:41 pm

    Good stuff! Always interesting to wonder how many “unreported” close calls there were-but no deaths in CO is awesome.

    And as far as snowmobilers being less educated, those days are over as far as I can tell from my work in the field. I find the snowmobile user group to be way more hands-on, ask good questions, and to lack the sense of entitlement that many skiers have. An interesting little study is to watch videos on Youtube of how snowmobilers respond to avalanche rescue vs. skiers. Lots helmet cams out there these days…

  5. Alex June 16th, 2016 4:14 pm

    Nice! Thankfully better knowledge, gear, education, outreach etc. have kept the average steady for the past 15-20 years, instead of increasing despite increased BC use.

    Maybe I misunderstood, but your historical numbers might be low. A quick look and query of the CAIC site shows 3 fatalities for CO in 2004, and at least one every year back to 1969. Also shows 11 for 2013 in CO. Just FYI. Thanks 🙂

    http://avalanche.state.co.us/accidents/statistics-and-reporting/

  6. Hacksaw June 16th, 2016 4:15 pm

    Lou,
    hold off on celebrating. There is still one man missing in the front range. Still missing is a snowboarder near the Urad Mine area. ART plans to do a big search on the 18th.
    Hacksaw

  7. Lou Dawson 2 June 16th, 2016 5:27 pm

    Alex, I looked through the years pretty carefully but I could have gotten it wrong. If so, I’ll correct as those numbers were just an aside. I just began checking again and it appears there were no Colorado avalanche deaths in 1953, and 1969 as most recent with no deaths, I’ll look ahead at the other years right now. Hacksaw, even if it’s one person, the concept of the celebration still stands though am sorry to hear it. If it’s one or two folks, I’ll edit the post. That’s still significantly less than where the number has been stuck for a while, with the fatalities going to around 7 during a number of recent years. Of course I’m just going by instinct here, actual statistical analysis of the numbers needs someone else.

    I’ve spoken with several people about the reduction in numbers and at least one person was of the opinion that a better snowpack was the major contributing factor and the people are not behaving all that differently. I don’t agree with that, I feel there has been an improvement on the human factor side. For example, I saw what I thought was less crazed powder mania at our local hotspot during more dangerous periods.

    Lou

  8. Mark Staples June 16th, 2016 8:21 pm

    Lou, thanks for writing about this! The rate of fatalities has definitely gone down. Educators, guides, forecasters, bloggers, manufacturers, ski areas, forecasters, media, and the entire community of backcountry users should be proud of all the lives saved. There’s no doubt a lot more work can be done to prevent avalanche deaths. However, the culture of safety among ALL backcountry users is incredible. Lets keep the momentum going.

  9. GeorgeT June 16th, 2016 9:22 pm

    Lou:
    I am glad good news is reported on the Wildsnow blog. We won’t hear about this on National News, Denver News or even local news. We will not hear a peep (pun intended) unless it is tragic from the normal news channels. Thank you!

  10. Dale Atkins June 17th, 2016 3:54 pm

    Thanks for passing along the good news! While it’s certainly worthy for a little celebratory jig and to toss down a pint or two, we have to remember that one or even several winters do not show a trend. It’s been awhile since no skiers died, but it’s not as unusual as your readers might think.

    The Colorado winters of 1996-97 and 2003-04 also saw no skiers and snowboarders killed. If only considering “skiers” (excluding snowboarders) the winter of 2005-06 also had no “skiers” killed. That winter a backcountry snowboarder had an unlucky, tragic encounter in an October avalanche. Since the mid-1980s Colorado’s “backcountry skiers” have been doing an outstanding job of not getting killed in avalanches, but our pattern does not appear in the rest of the US.

    The 1980s were the worst decade for backcountry skier deaths in Colorado when 31 died. In the 2000s it had plummeted to 11. However, it’s going back up. In the past 6 years 10 backcountry skiers have died. In Colorado there have been 7 winters in the 20 with no backcountry skier deaths (However, in those same winters skiers and snowboarders did die just outside resorts along with a few backcountry snowboarders, too.)

    Our Colorado scene does appear “beautiful” because of the dedicated efforts you identified (avalanche centers, educators and responsible skiers) and I’ll add luck, too. But blemishes are starting to reappear.

    Despite, no Colorado skier/snowboarder deaths this winter (but as Hacksaw pointed out, it may change) in the last six years we have almost matched the total of skier/snowboarder deaths for all of the 2000s. Nationally speaking, in the last 10 years despite the prevention efforts, the number of backcountry skiers caught and killed per fatal avalanche has gone up up after three decades of steady decline. Also, in the US, the number of backcountry skier deaths per decade stayed virtually unchanged during the 1980s to 2000s; however, in the last six years (42 deaths) we have almost reached the decadal average of 46. This last point is likely a consequence of of the tremendous increase in backcountry use; however, as you point out the fatality rate has stayed way less than the usage rate. It’s pretty amazing given the increase in backcountry usage.

    Also, thanks for mentioning snowmobiles in proper context and kudos to Steve for speaking up. More skiers and snowboarders (tallied together) die in avalanches than snowmobilers! From 1990 to present, of all US fatalities 40% have been skiers and snowboarders and 34% snowmobilers. Since 2000 the percentages are 41% to 37%.

    Snowmobilers are just as sincere and dedicated to learning about and avoiding avalanches and as well equipped as backcountry skiers. In the last 10ish years the numbers of snowmobilers dug up without rescue gear is about the same as with of skiers/snowboarders.

    Lastly, about snowmobilers, Colorado has experienced few avalanche snowmobile deaths compared to the rest of the US. Since 1980 only 27 (13%) of Colorado’s 211 avalanche deaths involved snowmobilers (129 were skiers and snowboarders). For the rest of the US 626 people died in avalanches of whom 214 (34%) were snowmobilers.

    Here are few factoids, Colorado’s first reported avalanche death occurred in 1861. Since then 769 are known to have died by the “white death.” That’s 34% of the US tally of 2256 deaths.

    I echo your message and Mark’s statements. Thanks again for spreading the news. As Mark wrote, we need to keep the momentum going.

  11. Lou Dawson 2 June 18th, 2016 7:31 am

    Thanks Dale, I was hoping you’d drop by. I was having trouble finding stats that were specific to “skier” deaths per year without tedious mouse clicking on the CAIC charts, good of you to get all that out there in prose.

    The “no skier death” seasons in my view occur much more obviously prior to the recent doubling of backcountry skier days. That’s the important thing. In the last decade we’ve seen a remarkable increase in the number of backcountry riders (and even snowshoe travelers) at trailheads. I expected it, but am still stunned by the numbers. For example, that huge crowd that showed up on Independence pass the first weekend it was open was way more people skiing and snowboarding than I’d ever seen up there. Just huge.

    And yes, as I pointed out in my post, there has been an obvious increase in skier avy deaths — in my view it’s important to note that increase does not match the remarkable increase in winter backcountry use we’ve seen happen. You point that out as well, thanks!

    By the way, I include snowboarders in the terms “skiers” when discussing backcountry “skier” avalanche deaths. I probably should have clarified that.

  12. Jamie July 9th, 2016 8:11 am

    Pure luck and a decent snowpack.

  13. Brad August 18th, 2016 10:59 am

    Looks like the missing guy(RIP) was finally found:
    “The sheriff’s office said the remains were found at the bottom of an avalanche slide path.”

    http://www.denverpost.com/2016/08/16/clear-creek-county-remains-found-man-missing/

  14. Lou Dawson 2 August 18th, 2016 12:01 pm

    Brad, thanks, sympathy to the guys friends and loved ones. I guess we’ll never know if he really got killed in a slide, or was in the slide path and perished for some other reason. I think I’ll edit the post but let the gist of it stand. Perhaps some talk about solo travel, which is statistically ok, until it is not. Lou

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