The Rising Age of Avalanche Victims

According to new research, the average age of victims to avalanche fatalities has increased since 1950

By Tristan Scott
Erich Peitzsch digs a pit to check snow conditions near Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon File Photo

Erich Peitzsch, a doctoral student at Montana State University and a snow scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Glacier National Park, says his latest research topic was inspired by a hunch — what if the average age of avalanche victims is increasing?

At first, Peitzsch, 41, dismissed the notion as purely anecdotal, based in part on a personal trauma after losing a 36-year-old friend and peer to an avalanche in Glacier’s backcountry. He’s also an avid backcountry skier pursuing a Ph.D. in snow science; he has worked for USGS since 2007 studying and forecasting avalanches, snow and glacial recession; and he worked as the director of the Flathead Avalanche Center.

Still, the more he drilled down into the data sets surrounding avalanche fatalities, the more a trend in age revealed itself — the mean age of avalanche victims in the United States is, in fact, increasing.

According to his recently published article in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, titled “How old are the people who die in avalanches? A look into the ages of avalanche victims in the United States (1950-2018),” the average age of avalanche victims has increased from 27.6 years old between 1950-1989 to 34.3 from 1990-2018.

“Why is the mean age increasing? Aren’t we supposed to get smarter as we get older?” Peitzsch wondered.

What he discovered in his research doesn’t answer those questions directly, but the results can help enhance avalanche education and forecasting efforts and have other ramifications for backcountry users.

“Though avalanche educators should still reach out to students of all ages, our results suggest that programs that target recreationalists over 30 years of age could have a better chance of reducing the number of people killed in avalanches,” according to the article.

Since the winter of 1950–1951, Peitzsch wrote that 1,084 individuals perished in snow avalanches in the United States. In the last 10 avalanche seasons, an average of 27 people per year died in avalanche accidents nationwide. Although winter backcountry visits have increased over time, the number of avalanche fatalities has not mimicked the trend, with 25-30 avalanche fatalities occurring annually between 1995-2016.

Of the individuals in their 30s who died in avalanches from 1990 to 2018, 85 (57 percent) were backcountry tourers or sidecountry riders and 64 (43 percent) were snowmobilers. Similarly, of the individuals in their 20s, 92 (61 percent) were backcountry tourers or sidecountry riders, and 60 (39 percent) were snowmobilers. In the overall dataset tracking both age and activity, 258 (55 percent) were backcountry tourers or sidecountry riders and 213 (45 percent) were snowmobilers.

There was no significant difference between the median age of snowmobilers (35 years) from 1990 to 2018 and the median age of backcountry tourers/sidecountry riders (31 years) — the two groups that comprise the bulk of fatalities in the dataset. There was also no significant difference between the median age of snowmobilers and the median age of all other activities (32 years) from the same period.

The problem is parsing out the age group from the cohort of backcountry users, Peitzsch said.

“Is it the 30 to 39 age group or is it the cohort? Are we just huge risk-takers with a poorer sense of risk management? Is 30 the new 20?”

Probably not, but other social factors could be driving more people into the winter backcountry at riper ages.

One such shifting social factor is the family-career balance, which could affect who visits the winter backcountry when.

For example, he noted that more people are getting married and having children at comparatively advanced stages of life, meaning a 40-year-old dad sneaking out for a rare Sunday tour might assess risk differently than a 20-year-old with fewer responsibilities and more opportunities to spend in the mountains.

“People who were once saddled with responsibilities in their 30s aren’t now,” he said.

Peitzsch said he hopes the results help tailor avalanche warning services to use a wider range of methods to disseminate avalanche safety information, including products that target older, and potentially more experienced, users.

“Continued monitoring of the age of avalanche victims paired with the analysis we presented would allow us to determine whether these trends are tied to the age group or the cohort,” according to the article. “Results could help inform avalanche forecasting and education efforts by identifying groups most vulnerable to avalanche accidents. This, in turn, helps the avalanche community target and apply appropriate messaging and educational techniques.”

For example, the report notes that the widely used “Know Before You Go” program (www.kbyg.org) primarily targets youth.

“If current trends continue, an additional program primarily targeting an older age group may be warranted,” according to the article.