By John Clary Davies
Nearly two months after Jamie Pierre's pre-season death in an avalanche at Snowbird, conditions haven't changed much around the West. Ski areas nationwide have scant, or at least below average, snowpacks. While reports from avalanche forecasters throughout the region have also been bleak—most are noting the presence of extremely weak layers—skiers and snowboarders are still venturing into avalanche terrain.
Last week, two snowmobilers and one skier died in avalanches in Montana. On Dec. 29, veteran ski patroller Duncan MacKenzie died after being swept away near Pemberton, B.C. On New Year's Day, an avalanche on Berthoud Pass in Colorado took a skier for a 400-foot ride and buried him up to his neck, requiring a medical evacuation. Then, on Jan. 3, a snowboarder triggered a wall-to-wall slide on the Pucker Face of Cody Peak, outside the ropes at Jackson Hole, Wyo. (See video up top.)
• Jan. 1, Berthoud Pass slide analysis by the CAIC’s Spencer Logan. See full report HERE.
On Dec. 31, an avalanche also claimed the life and partially buried two Canadian Mountain Holidays patrons near Revelstoke, B.C. It was the first heli or cat-skiing death since the 2009-2010 season, when two died. The avalanche ripped 75 meters wide on moderate terrain below treeline, even after another CMH group had skied the same area that day. A day earlier, skiers also triggered two slides near Golden, B.C., but none were harmed.
"The preexisting snow is extremely weak—the weakest, thickest layer of faceted snow I have ever seen in Utah in over a quarter century of avalanche forecasting," wrote Bruce Tremper in his Utah Avalanche Center forecast on Dec. 30. Five days later he wrote, "You may get lucky in this terrain, but I doubt it."
The extremely weak layers throughout the West mean that even when the snow does come, risks will remain high.
"It doesn't bode well for the future," said Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "We have mostly weak snow here in Colorado and where it's not weak, we have strong snow sitting on top of weak snow… When we get snow on top, it's going to set up for a very dangerous situation."
Greene said that some layers are so weak they allow skiers to trigger avalanches from trails they wouldn't normally worry about. The skier that died in the avalanche in Montana was on low angle terrain, but the crack he triggered spread to a steeper slope above him.
"You could be travelling in terrain that you don't consider avalanche terrain, that's low angle and safe," said Greene. "In this sort of scenario, the snow is so weak, cracks can shoot hundreds of feet and up into steep terrain that runs into low angle terrain."
Skiers and snowboarders venturing into the backcountry should always check their local avalanche forecast so they are aware of which terrain poses risks. Find your local avalanche center here—avalanche.org for the U.S., and avalanche.ca for Canada.
"There's always safe places you can go," said Greene. "It's just a matter of recognizing potential danger and using terrain to minimize your risk."
• Late December, Wolf Creek Pass snowpack profile, by forecaster Trent Meisenheimer.