It’s been a deadly winter for backcountry fun

What would it take to keep snowmobilers and others safe in avalanche terrain?

 

This has been a deadly winter for fun in the heavily snow-laden backcountry. Through January, avalanches had killed 21 people in North America, including hikers, climbers, skiers and snowboarders.

Snowmobilers — including the five killed last weekend in British Columbia — account for 12 of the 21 deaths. Every case is different, but a fatality in late January in Colorado is revealing. It was on a day of blue skies at Crested Butte in western Colorado, when six local men decided to hop on their snowmobiles.

Mindful of high avalanche danger, they opted for what seemed safer fun on the lower slopes of Ruby Bowl, about seven miles west of Crested Butte. After building a jump, they used the snowmobiles in yoyo fashion to ferry skiers and snowboarders up the slope for sliding and jumping.

Located just below tree line, at about 11,000 feet above sea level, the slope seemed tame. Every avalanche book on the planet warns of 30-to-45-degree slopes, and this one was just 20 degrees. Above their chosen playground, however, the slopes steepened to 32 to 42 degrees. That made all the difference.

In early afternoon, after eight laps, two of the men were riding uphill abreast on a snowmobile. Just as they turned the snowmobile, the avalanche from the steep slope above broke. It wasn't a large avalanche, but it buried the snowmobile driver up to his shins. His unfortunate passenger, however, was washed downhill 340 feet into a small stand of trees, and directly into a tree well.

Others were quickly on the scene. They were equipped with transceivers, metal shovels and probes, the essential avalanche safety equipment. They picked up the signal of their companion and began digging. First one six-foot hole, then another. Nothing, but still the signal. Digging just a foot deeper, they found their companion.

All of this had taken a mere 15 minutes. It was still too long. The man died later in a hospital.

Avalanche transceivers, also called beacons, can save lives. But consider this: About 25 percent of all victims die of trauma, not suffocation. In that case, the beacon just helps searchers find the body more easily.

As demonstrated at Crested Butte, time is precious. "Your odds go down immediately with every ticking second, but you see a dramatic rate (of fatalities) after about 15 minutes," says Brian Lazar of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Colorado has an inland climate, usually featuring a few heavy storms followed by periods of cold. This creates weak, sugary layers of marble-like depth hoar, a recipe for slab avalanches. The January avalanche near Crested Butte had a fracture line that was three feet deep.

New technological wrinkles -- air bags and Avalungs -- have helped, but not that much. The best thing is to avoid an avalanche altogether. Colorado has led the United States in avalanche deaths since 1950, with 270 occurring from then and through last year, followed by Alaska (145), Washington (116), Utah (114) and Montana (108). California comes in behind them with 66 fatalities, despite having just as many high mountains and far more people.

A snowmobile-triggered avalanche.

Colorado avalanche forecasters report that the 10 U.S avalanche deaths in January within a nine-day span were typical in a surprising way: About 70 percent of fatal avalanche accidents occur within four days of a prior accident, according to a 2012 study. In other words, you can go weeks without an avalanche death — and then, wham-bam.

In British Columbia, where 80 percent of Canada's avalanche fatalities occur, last weekend was a wham-bam. Seventeen snowmobilers were caught in a hellacious avalanche on Mount Renshaw, part of a snowmobiling paradise around the small town of McBride. Altogether, five men – all from Alberta, ranging in age from 42 to 55 — died. As at Crested Butte, other snowmobilers were quick on the scene with probes, beacons and shovels. As detailed by Canada's Globe and Mail, they got to one of the victims within five minutes. It was still too late.

"Heartbreaking" was the reaction of Mary Clayton, communications director for Avalanche Canada the Canadian Avalanche Centre. "Clearly, we have a lot of work to do."

Canadian avalanche professionals typically instruct about 8,000 people annually in safety. Just 10 to 15 percent are snowmobilers. The statistics argue that they need to pay closer attention. For the decade ending in 2014, avalanches killed 54 snowmobilers in Canada as compared to 49 skiers.

Meanwhile, Avalanche Canada has shifted its instruction, says Clayton, with instructors now emphasizing terrain rather than the more complicated snow physics. Making safe route choices is a simpler story: Stay off slopes of more than 30 degrees -- especially if there's a steeper slope above.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in the Denver area and writes about Western environmental issues.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY OUTREACH MANAGER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.