PHOTO: Howie Garber
In the blissful and carefree world of skiing, avalanches provide the harsh, cruel reality of Mother Nature, often having devastating results. Every year, avalanches kill an average of 27 people in the United States, with a large percentage of those deaths being skiers and snowboarders.
This past winter saw record-setting snowfall across the West, with Jackson Hole recording their second deepest season in 40 years and Sierra Nevada snowpack in California sitting at 173 percent above average during February reports. But with great snow, comes great responsibility. Heavy snowfall spiked the rate of avalanche hazards throughout the season, and given historic trends, some experts thought this winter would produce an unfortunately large number of avalanche deaths.
This was not the case, however. Only 12 total avalanche fatalities were recorded during the 2016/17 winter season, eight of those being skiers and snowboarders. And, for the first time in 26 years, there were no avalanche deaths reported in Utah.
While one death is already too many, the relatively low number illustrates what many industry professionals see as a promising start to an increased education and knowledge about avalanche safety.
"It's a big deal because every year we see more and more people in the backcountry. This means we have more people in avalanche terrain every year, but the same or even fewer dying. It's safe to say the fatality rate is declining," said Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
Staples says it shows that avalanche safety has started to become part of the cultural norm. "It’s not just formal programs, it occurs on a one-on-one basis," he said. "Because the level of awareness and education is so high, avalanche safety has become a normal conversation. It has become a normal topic between people at the trailhead, at the bar, and everywhere."
Ben White, a backcountry skier who spends most of his days in Utah's Wasatch Range, agrees that the increased media attention on the subject of snow safety is leading to a more educated public. "I think that with more media out there, people, in general, are starting to see that avalanches don't only happen to the hardcore extreme people going out into hardcore extreme terrain," White said.
White also said that during his time in the backcountry this season, he has come across several people who admitted that they were unfamiliar with snow safety but wanted to learn more. "A casual-seeming couple passed us and thanked us for our work [checking the snow], thinking that we were avalanche center workers," White said. "When we saw them again, I asked one if he knew much about avalanches. He said 'No, but I know they're dangerous. We plan on taking a course next year.'"
Safety courses are only a part of the work being done to increase awareness and refine the decision-making process. Organizations like the Avalanche Safety Project, the Know Before You Go (KBYG) program, and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) all promote avalanche safety and education programs across North America. Abiding by the classic G.I. Joe mantra, "Knowing is half the battle," these organizations recognize that simply informing the public and starting the conversation about the dangers of avalanches can help stop countless avoidable disasters.
Karl Birkeland, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, said in addition to safety courses, the work being done by national and local avalanche centers to spread the word, especially over social media, has also led to safer backcountry use. "Our avalanche center utilizes social media extensively, and then when those messages are shared again and again, it really pushes the information out to people."
While reaching zero avalanche fatalities in a season may be a lofty goal nationwide, and involves a certain amount of luck, increased attention on avalanche safety education may make this goal possible. In the last decade alone, 342 people have been killed in avalanches in North America. Birkeland says that while it is unlikely we will reach zero deaths nationwide, he is hopeful that numbers can remain steady, or even fall, as backcountry use continues to grow each year.