Clearly, no one wanted to jinx this streak by writing about it. Now it’s the middle of June with what’s left of the Colorado snowpack transitioning to summer snow patches (with a few places at altitude on north faces that could still be dangerous during thaws). So I’ll break the wall and say, THIS IS WONDERFUL, BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING — it appears no skiers or snowboarders died in avalanches. (Though one skier avalanche victim may still be missing, search is ongoing. If that’s the case, while tragic, we still have a stunning reduction in skier fatalities for this past season and I’ll edit accordingly. Also, please note that the term “skiers” in this blog post refers also to snowboarders.)
Yes, we did have a better than average snowpack in terms of stability. Sometimes much better than average. Yet we had plenty of dicy periods, plenty of bad layers, plenty of danger.
So credit where credit is due.
To all of you backcountry skiers out there in Colorado who took care with your route finding, dialed your risk levels, traveled well equipped, educated yourselves and otherwise practiced what were obviously high levels of avalanche danger awareness, CONGRATULATIONS!
To the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: You guys work hard, keeping us aware of the danger but also supporting avalanche safety education in numerous ways. CONGRATULATIONS!
To all the avalanche educators out there. Guides, school teachers, mentors, your caring concern for reducing the awful tragedy of untimely death is so appreciated by so many of us. CONGRATULATIONS!
One interesting thing is that back in March, avalanches had killed 23 people in the United States. According to the CAIC, this was second largest number of cumulative fatalities through February since the winter of 2000-01. The usual Colorado winter could have bumped that up to even more tragic levels, and while we did have 3 Colorado snowmobilers and 1 climber lose their lives, skiers may have contributed no numbers to the grim metric (which overall at 4 deaths was still tragic, and “average” considering the past three decades or so.)
Perhaps most importantly (considering only 3 deaths and no skier fatalities) is that the numbers of recreationists using Colorado avalanche terrain has been exploding in double digit percentages for a number of years now — with what has obviously been a doubling time (based on cars parked at trailheads) of around 7 years. Avalanche accidents have not kept pace to the degree many of us expected. There has been an increase, but if we’d had the same doubling in fatalities we’d be looking at what a napkin calc tells me would be something like 20 people a year dying in Colorado.
I dug in to some stats specific to Colorado, it appears our last year with no avalanche Colorado fatalities (of any sort) was 1969, before then there were a few other “clean” years along with a steady march of around 3 victims a year. The last season with no skier deaths was 2003-2004 according to Dale Atkins (see comments). Things went along fairly well after that, then an alarming upsurge occurred after 2010, leading to the horrible year of 2013 with 9 Colorado avalanche deaths. That’s far from 20+ that my informal math would predict, and now we have a winter when no skier perished. Beautiful.
Indeed, over the whole U.S., fatalities climbed sharply from 1991 to about 1996 then leveled off during a period of concurrent growth in outdoor winter recreation (see image above). Something was clearly happening. In my view, that “something” has been a remarkable convergence of knowledge, gear, and less quantifiable human factors such as caution and judgement.
Sidenote, regarding the obvious preponderance of snowmobiler avalanche accidents: It’s tempting for skiers to sniff at snowmobilers as having less avalanche safety savvy, as they do get involved in avy accidents all too frequently. Such might be justified regarding sledders who don’t carry basic safety gear and do things like center punching a high-mark on a day with elevated hazard — but hold on. Remember that while a human powered ski tourer might encounter just a few avalanche slopes in a day, a snowmachiner might touch hundreds. That’s a big deal, and changes the whole picture for how we skiers should regard the prevalence of snowmachine avalanche accidents. Like it or not, some of this is an odds game and drawing lots of cards means the joker will eventually face up. We all should keep that in mind.
Check out our other articles covering avalanche safety.
Article about Colorado rider who may have perished in avalanche, but is still missing.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.