Advanced backcountry travelers more likely to be involved in avalanches

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The snowfall has been lacking so far this season causing the Steamboat Resort to move back its start date to Dec. 1 due to a “well below average” snowpack.

“Sometimes we have good starts to the season, and sometimes we have not so good starts to the season,” said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website

One potentially bright side of the lack of early season snow, Weissbluth said, is that early snow often turns into a rotten snowpack in the backcountry, which can lead to avalanches.

When the pandemic closed the ski resorts in March, there was a noted uptick in people turning to the backcountry to meet their skiing needs, and that increased backcountry activity is anticipated to continue this winter.

The report

A report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center released earlier this month studied avalanche incidents last season and found that most people who were involved in an avalanche had significant levels of avalanche experience.

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“This begs the question: Does formal, field-based training or avalanche experience increase or decrease your chance of getting caught in an avalanche?” the report asks.

The authors of the report, Ethan Greene the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Spencer Logan who maintains their avalanche data, say they cannot answer that question with the data available.

They do say that those with formal, field-based training or avalanche experience may put themselves in more precarious situations, venturing into avalanche prone areas not out of ignorance but in confidence.

The report looked at 86 different avalanche incidents involving 126 people from last season. Of those, 88 people were caught up in the avalanche, six were fully buried and six people died.

Other studies have explored the relationship between education and involvement with avalanches but in many of those, researchers knew what classes or experience people had participated in prior to the avalanche. In this study, they were limited because they could not talk to all the people involved in an avalanche in Colorado last year, so they devised a way to classify education and experience of a person with avalanches based on the information they already had.

They found that nearly 40% of people caught in an avalanche or in a group with someone caught in an avalanche had taken a Level 1 avalanche course. About 70% of people caught in avalanches had intermediate or advanced experience.

Avalanches are rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being low and 5 being extreme. The current avalanche rating from the avalanche center for the Steamboat and Flat Tops area is low, though Vail and Summit areas as well as several other areas to the south are considered moderate risk.

The review of last year’s data was consistent with previous research that showed most avalanches happen when the area has a Level 2 Moderate or a Level 3 Considerable rating. About 60% of avalanches happened when the area was given a moderate avalanche rating.

An interesting finding was the difference in who was involved in an avalanche before and after the ski resorts closed because of the pandemic. They noticed that as many skiers moved to the backcountry after March 13, more of the people involved in avalanches were advanced backcountry travelers.

“As recreation increased after pandemic closures of ski areas and other activities, easily-accessible areas became crowded and tracked up. More skilled recreators used those skills to push into less-familiar terrain or explore new areas,” the report says.

Throughout the 2019-20 season most of the people involved in avalanches had either intermediate or advanced levels of experience, something that has been shown in research before. A 2002 study went so far as to say that avalanche education did not reduce exposure to avalanches, but Greene and Logan put it differently.

“Instead, our results suggest people were using their training and experience to spend more time traveling in avalanche terrain, or traveling during more avalanche-prone conditions,” the report says.

They also saw a striking difference in number of avalanches that happened in considerable risk areas before and after resorts closed. While half of the avalanches in a Level 3 Considerable area studied took place after March 13, just 17% of the rest of the days in the season had been forecast to have considerable risk.

This was another indication to Greene and Logan that backcountry travelers were accepting more risk to avalanche exposure when they ventured out this spring. Overall, the report suggests that more experienced backcountry travelers put themselves in situations that make their additional experience a wash when it comes to risk.

“People that invest in avalanche education and gain experience in the mountains typically do so because they spend time in avalanche terrain, which increases their exposure to avalanches. In aggregate, the additional exposure may offset the application of risk-reduction strategies,” the report says.

The takeaway: “We should all take a hard look at the assumptions we make about ourselves and our riding partners.”

Greene and Logan question whether people are using their experience to avoid avalanches, make good decisions and properly assess hazards or if they are relying on experience that is built on a series of positive feedback events to get by.

“A common tendency is to look for reasons why we would have done something different or why our education or experience would have produced a different result. This tendency, known as the blind-sight bias, can limit our ability to avoid a similar outcome when faced with similar circumstances,” the report says.

Greene and Logan admit there are limitations to their findings because of the small sample size. They were only able to use data about avalanches that were reported to them from one season in one state and they were only able to collect data about avalanches that involved people.

Still, the findings make logical sense to many that have to deal with avalanches.

An image taken April 8, 2018, by an unknown citizen avalanche observer of a complex slid path in the vicinity of Fish Creek Canyon. It was described by the observer as two slides in one. (Courtesy photo)

An ounce of prevention

Dan Gilchrist, a team leader with Routt County Search and Rescue said that there are several traps that people can fall into that gets them in trouble in the backcountry.

One of the most important parts of avalanche awareness classes is to be able to identify and avoid avalanche terrain. He said that while having more expertise could potentially lead to someone putting themselves in situations where they are more likely to be involved with an avalanche, he feels the expertise allows people to make good decisions to avoid being caught up in a slide.

“I agree that people that put themselves in those situations are more likely to be affected by those situations,” Gilchrist said. “But I also feel that people that are educated in that respect are also less likely because if they make sound judgments they can avoid that.”

Gilchrist said that he is worried that this year in particular new backcountry users will get themselves in trouble because of their lack of experience. He said he anticipates a lot of people to head to the backcountry this winter, which could push newbies to do more than they are comfortable with.

He also stressed that if someone is in trouble they should call Search and Rescue as soon as possible as it often takes them a while to get to where someone is in the backcountry. Search and Rescue does not charge for its services.

“We’re there for people to help. We want people to be prepared not only in their knowledge of the backcountry but being willing to call for help,” Gilchrist said.

Another potential trap is the scarcity of winter sports, Gilchrist said. Because of the uncertainty with ski areas this season and people’s pent up desire to lace up their ski boots it could lead them to get overly ambitious early in the season, especially when snow can be weaker in spots.

The continental United States generally gets a dry early season snow, which creates a somewhat rotten layer of snow on the bottom where as now, on the coasts normally has more moisture. Gilchrist said this can make the snowpack more fragile and have more avalanches.

Past students go over the proper use of an avalanche beacon before trekking into the backcountry at the top of Rabbit Ears Pass for an avalanche awareness class offered by Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Know before you go

Gilchrist said that it is important to know before you go by reading the forecast and understanding how the snowpack has changed in an area throughout the year.

“If you are skiing an area on a regular basis, and you know what happened a week ago of a month ago in the snowpack that can help you identify the danger,” Gilchrist said. “Dig into the snow, be inquisitive about what is in there and watch for red flags and warning signs.”

Things like storm snow, where it has snowed a lot in a short period of time, high winds and rapidly increasing temperatures are all things that can contribute to avalanches. Gilchrist suggested that people go into the backcountry with people that are on the same level of experience and have the same risk threshold.

Routt County Search and Rescue has not been on many avalanche calls lately with the most recent one incident commander Kristia Check Hill can remember being several years ago. Gilchrist said that most avalanche rescues are done by someone nearby simply because it takes them too long to get there.

Check Hill said that everyone going into the backcountry should have a beacon, shovel and a probe in case there is an avalanche. When they go out on a rescue, everyone on the rescue team has a beacon not only to help find someone, but also because they often are traveling through avalanche risks to get to someone.

Not only is it important to have these items, but the biggest thing is practicing with it and knowing how to properly use it, Check Hill said.

“When you have these tools, which are all great and you need to have them, know how to use them,” Check Hill said. “The time you are there is not the time to pull out the instruction manual.”

She said when Search and Rescue practices, they will bury something that feels like a body in the snow and practice finding it. She also said it is important to know what kinds of equipment people in the group have, if they had a beacon and what they were wearing.

“Those kind of things you don’t think about, what your buddy was wearing, but it could help you see clues on the mountain on the debris field,” Check Hill said.

She emphasized that it is important for everyone to have a beacon to find each other if there is an avalanche and to know how to use properly to help other people in the group.

“It is important for everyone in the group too have a beacon and a shovel and a probe and to know how to use it,” Check Hill said. “Because my life is depending on you knowing how to use it to find me and vice versa.”

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