Avalanche deaths persist despite improved forecasting
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — When Knox Williams first started warning people about avalanches in Colorado from his small office in Fort Collins, there was only one way to receive the information: People had to call an avalanche hotline on a landline and listen to his recording of the forecast.
Nearly 50 years later, avalanche forecasting and the spread of that information by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center — and others like it around the country — has improved by leaps and bounds, especially in recent years.
More information is gathered and made readily available on social media, apps and websites than ever before. It can even be consumed on smartphones in real time while in avalanche terrain.
Despite those advancements, 37 people died in avalanches nationally last year, the most in at least 70 years since reliable record keeping began. Twelve of those people died in Colorado, the most since 20 people, mostly miners, were killed by avalanches during the 1915-16 season.
So far this season, eight people have died in avalanches in the U.S., including three in Colorado — numbers that exceed and match, respectively, last year’s totals at this time. And January, February and March are, on average, the deadliest months of the season nationally and in Colorado.
But why, with information about conditions and the risks they pose now available at the touch of a finger, do these deaths continue to happen?
“Those deaths will never stop happening simply because people are adventurous; many of the people who get caught know exactly the risk they are taking,″ said Williams, whose avalanche career began as a forecaster in 1973 in Fort Collins and ended as the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 2005.
Ethan Greene, the state avalanche center’s current director who replaced Williams, said it’s “frustrating and sad that despite all the information now available there still are bad outcomes.″
— The ‘human factor’ triggers 90% of deadly avalanches
Improvements in weather forecasting, which is integral in avalanche forecasting, and other tools have allowed forecasters to much more accurately predict the likeliest locations where avalanches will occur.
Still, avalanche deaths have exceeded the national annual average (25) and Colorado average (six) during six of the past 10 seasons. Since 1950, avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard.
Experts say that’s because while forecasts can accurately tell where avalanches are likely to happen, humans serve as a trigger, causing 90% of slides in which accidents occur.
They call that the “human factor.″
That factor is increasing with more people cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and snowmobiling in the backcountry, fueled last year by people escaping pandemic restrictions by heading to the mountains for fresh air and powder.
More people recreating in the mountains tips the odds of more people being caught in avalanches. Equipment advances add to the risk by giving those recreationists the ability to explore more terrain, which means more exposure to avalanches.
Owen Richard is director of the 30-year-old Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, whose 50 volunteers patrol the backcountry slopes, bowls and trails around Cameron Pass 70 miles west of Fort Collins.
Despite his team’s efforts, the area has been home to the state’s first avalanche death of the season this year and last.
He said just as forecasting has improved, so too has avalanche safety education, which helps people better identify avalanche conditions and reduce human error.
But “we are still freaking humans, and that’s why people die,″ he said.
Over the past two decades, avalanche education has focused on preventing avalanche accidents by teaching backcountry travel safety, said Richard, who is an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education-certified avalanche safety instructor.
“Those going into avalanche terrain should be like pilots and make a preflight checklist, which takes some of the human error out of the equation,″ Richard said. “You can’t turn on your analytic capabilities when you turn off the exit to where you see open slopes. It starts at home and on the drive up gathering information and you don’t turn that off until you are safely back in your kitchen.″
— Deaths keep avalanche forecasters looking for answers
While there have been a high number of avalanche deaths in recent years, there’s no telling how many lives advances in avalanche forecasting have saved.
However, it is telling how much avalanche information is now readily available on an array of social media platforms via smartphones and computers, apps, signage at trailheads and recordings on Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website.
Colorado forecasters rise early each morning and gather information from weather forecasts, observations from their own field trips, discussions with ski patrollers and ski area avalanche control people, highway avalanche control crews, volunteers and reports from the public.
They then make a detailed report for each of Colorado’s 10 avalanche zones that is digestible for backcountry users. The forecasts include a number from 1 to 5 rating the avalanche danger, with 1 being low and 5 extreme, and a summary detailing current conditions, types of avalanches possible, risk factor on various aspects of terrain as well as a weather forecast.
Further information is included in field reports and observations with details on recent avalanches.
A feature added last year called Avalanche Explorer includes an interactive map that details where avalanches occurred and when, their size, how they were triggered and aspects of the area that slid for a wide variety of date ranges
Other avalanche information centers in the West provide similar useful information.
But when February of last year happened, avalanche experts like Greene were left looking for ways to further improve avalanche forecasting to reduce deaths.
Dangerous snowpack in many Western states led to one of the deadliest months on record with 26 avalanche fatalities nationally. Colorado saw seven avalanche deaths the first half of that month.
Leading up to the deadly month, Greene said the center saw snowpack conditions that happen once in 10 years increasing the risk of avalanches in the state. That prompted the state avalanche center to warn people of the dangerous conditions through a blitz of social media videos, radio and TV interviews, TV ads and billboards
Colorado had one avalanche fatality after February.
“What we try to do is provide the best information we have so that people can make informed decisions,″ Greene said. “You need to remember in backcountry recreation, it’s an individual sport, not a group sport, and part of what attracts people to the backcountry is using their ability to assess the potential avalanche risk and how they want to deal with that risk.″
Despite the deaths, Greene said he is encouraged by the short-term and long-term future of avalanche forecasting.
He said the center is working with groups to search for better avalanche detection methods.
Those include technology that would allow forecasters to see avalanches releasing during big snowstorms to give them a better understanding of where and what parts of the terrain the slides are releasing.
He said promising advances include satellite imaging, enhanced radar and infrasound where devices placed at selected sites can detect avalanches through sounds at a lower frequency than the human ear can recognize.
“Five or more years ago I would have said, ‘These are great ideas, but how will it work for us?’,″ Greene said. “Now they are becoming tools we can use now or in the near future.″
He said the center does a good job at accurate forecasting, helping people understand the different risks of different terrain and aspects of that terrain and how avalanches can be triggered.
He said the next step will be for the center to make it easier for backcountry recreationists to avoid avalanche terrain through geospatial technology.
“We do a really good job of describing conditions, but what we can’t do is give you a map that tells you ‘that slope is going to slide’ or ‘that one will not,’ ″ Greene said. “I would like to get to the point where we could do that so you can make a map of your route and avoid avalanche hazards like finding the best route from Fort Collins to a museum in Denver.″
— Without avalanche centers, former director says deaths ‘would just skyrocket’
Williams was part of the small staff in Fort Collins in 1970 that made up the Colorado Avalanche Warning Program, the state’s first avalanche forecast center.
The program was cut in 1983 when then-President Ronald Reagan reduced funding to the U.S. Forest Service, which housed the program.
Soon thereafter, state workers seeding clouds to increase snow were so concerned about avalanches in the backcountry that Williams’ avalanche knowledge was needed by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
The department wanted Williams to restart avalanche forecasting. Problem was, it didn’t have any money and Williams would have to find funding, he recalled.
Williams got the Colorado Department of Transportation, which relied on avalanche forecasting for highways, along with donors to drum up $100,000 to fund the new Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 1983.
“We started with a phone line and staff of two and slowly built it up,″ said Williams, who now lives in Cedaredge on the Western Slope. “We told them if we had more money we could do a better job. Backcountry sports were really starting to take off, making it harder to keep up with the demand for information.″
When Greene replaced Williams in 2005, the office was moved from Fort Collins to Boulder. Through the leadership of those two, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has become one of the premier avalanche centers in the country.
The state avalanche center has grown to a budget of nearly $2.2 million and 23 employees, according to its 2021 annual report. It receives nearly $1 million from the state’s severance tax, required from those who receive income from oil and gas production and mining of nonrenewable natural resources, and nearly $900,000 from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Friends of the CAIC contributed about $230,000 last year and invested nearly $625,000 into avalanche forecasting and education in Colorado overall during the 2019-2020 season.
Last year, the state avalanche center received nearly 3 million page views on its website, more than 1 million views on its app and has nearly 45,700 Twitter followers and nearly 27,000 Facebook followers.
“It would be interesting if you took away the avalanche centers what would happen with avalanche accidents and fatalities,″ Williams said. “They would just skyrocket.″
— Avalanche safety tips
Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s current avalanche forecast at avalanche.state.co.us to get information on avalanche conditions. You can also call 303-499-9650. Also check the latest weather forecast to see if conditions are likely to change while you are in the backcountry.
Take an avalanche safety class
Always have one or more companions.
Even small avalanches can be fatal. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 35 degrees and 50 degrees but can run as low as 30 degrees. Bring an inclinometer to determine slope angle.
If you hear a cracking, whumping or drum-like sound, exit the area immediately.
If crossing a slope that may be prone to avalanches, do it one person at a time. You want to have rescuers available should you get caught in a a slide.
All members of your party should carry avalanche rescue equipment, including an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe pole, and know how to efficiently use them. This increases your chances of a successful rescue and finding your friends alive.
The most dangerous times for avalanches to occur are during and for the next several days after a snowstorm.
Avoid wind-blown loaded areas like cornices, drifts and steep slopes.
Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center