With the Jan. 20 death of a skier outside the boundaries of Big Sky Resort and three deaths in California, this winter’s avalanche fatality rate is rapidly outpacing recent seasons across the West – and this is proving especially true among skiers and snowboarders.
Avalanche deaths among winter recreationalists in the United States and Canada this season has reached 38 – 27 in the U.S. alone – as of this writing, according to avalanche.org. Last year at this time saw seven avalanche fatalities, in a season that would eventually reach 26. The 2005-2006 season had only 14 avalanche fatalities by this time, and the season before that there were 19 deaths by the beginning of February.
The worst season in recent memory, the winter of 2002-2003, in which 58 people died from avalanches in North America, had only 20 fatalities by this point.
This winter, snowmobile deaths total eight so far, less than a quarter of fatalities. In previous seasons, snowmobilers accounted for about one-half to one-third of avalanche deaths. If counted together, the largest group of backcountry users killed in avalanches has consistently been skiers and snowboarders.
And with a big upsurge in the amount of people accessing the backcountry, Tom Murphy, executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, doesn’t anticipate the fatality statistics decreasing any time soon.
“No one is interested, particularly the younger group, in skiing groomed runs anymore,” Murphy said. “They want to do what they see their heroes doing in the movies.”
“None of the movies have guys skiing on groomed runs,” he added.
These younger skiers and snowboarders are often highly skilled athletes, but their avalanche assessment skills and experience might be low or nonexistent, Murphy said, and they’re willing to take greater risks. “They haven’t experienced friends that have died in an avalanche.”
Another possible factor in recent avalanche deaths is the emergence of the term “sidecountry,” referring to out-of-bounds terrain adjacent to the patrolled borders of a ski resort. “We’ve seen a lot of avalanche deaths related to that,” Murphy said. The word connotes less-dangerous terrain than “backcountry,” and a skier who has accessed a high ridge by riding a lift, as opposed to climbing it, might not feel the same degree of respect for the slope.
In addition, there are usually more people skiing the “sidecountry,” which can contribute to a false sense of safety. In the recent Big Sky avalanche death, the victim chose to ski a line just left of where a party had been skiing immediately prior.
As for the rest of the season, Murphy is not optimistic it will prove any safer than the first half: “I’m getting pretty discouraged in the numbers this year, as far as deaths.”
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