Deadliest in the country: Colorado still the most dangerous state for avalanches | SteamboatToday.com
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Deadliest in the country: Colorado still the most dangerous state for avalanches

A skier looks on at an avalanche triggered on Little Agnes Mountain in 2018. Last winter season was one of the deadliest on record for avalanche fatalities, owing to the heavy snowpack and growing popularity of backcountry skiing.
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For the 59th year in a row, Colorado has maintained its status as the country’s most dangerous state for avalanches, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Colorado has held the record ever since experts started tallying avalanches in 1950, owing to a mix of the growing popularity of mountain recreation and the state’s climate.

The Avalanche Information Center’s annual report showed the 2018-19 season as one of the most substantial ever recorded. At least 4,273 slides occurred across state, far surpassing the number recorded in any season in the past decade. One event in March produced three separate slides and turned into the most destructive avalanche recorded in Colorado history.

Experts at the center attributed the record year to heavy snowfall. Steamboat Resort received 142% of its average snowfall, according to the annual report.

This winter, early snowfall in October has created an unstable layer in many areas, according to experts, which continues to pose a threat of avalanches.  

In Routt County, at least six avalanches have been recorded this season, according to the Avalanche Information Center. That includes a Dec. 15 slide at Steamboat Resort, which completely buried one person. Several witnesses and Steamboat Ski Patrol managed to save that person and another who was partially buried. 

“That was an incredible outcome,” said Dan Edmiston, who teaches avalanche safety at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.  

Other avalanche incidents have not ended so fortunately. Since the 1950-51 season, at least 287 people have died in avalanches, according to the Avalanche Information Center. That is almost double the number of fatalities recorded in Alaska (158), the state with the second-most avalanche deaths.

Graphic courtesy of Summit Daily News.

This season, at least one person in Colorado has died in an avalanche. A 29-year-old woman was killed in a slide on Cameron Pass on Dec. 8. 

Over the years, the rate of avalanche fatalities has increased, as Summit Daily reported in a recent article. In the 1980s, about 14.3 people died in avalanches per season, compared with 25.6 in the past decade. 

Edmiston partly attributes this trend to the growing popularity of backcountry skiing and the development of equipment that allows people to access more remote and steeper terrain. 

Ethan Greene, director of the Avalanche Information Center, also pointed to Colorado’s climate, which he said creates less predictable avalanche conditions than other mountainous states. Cooler temperatures, heavy wind and shallower snowpack contribute to those conditions, he said. 

Routt County does not pose as dire a threat for avalanches compared to other Colorado counties, according to data from the Avalanche Information Center, mostly due to the lack of steeper terrain. Of the more than 4,200 slides that occurred last year, only 40 were recorded in Routt County.

Know before you go

Weather can change in an instant in Colorado so always be aware of changing conditions as you go out into the backcountry. 

Nevertheless, the risk exists, and this season’s conditions are dangerous enough to give Edmiston some hesitancy to venture onto certain slopes. The weak layer from October’s snow storms remains a concern, he said.

“I’m being more conservative in my choices of places I ski,” Edmiston said. 

No matter how dangerous avalanche conditions get, Edmiston said people can find terrain that is safe to ski. In current conditions, he said any slopes less than 30 degrees in steepness are fair game. About 90% of avalanches occur on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Edmiston cautioned people to check if there are steeper slopes uphill of the area they are skiing that could trigger an avalanche below.

A backcountry skier for 10 years, Edmiston teaches classes through Colorado Mountain College on avalanche safety and backcountry rescue. He is offering several classes in January. Visit coloradomtn.edu/programs/avalanche-science for more information.

People are encouraged to check the avalanche danger before they head out and get forecasts on conditions on the Avalanche Information Center’s website at avalanche.state.co.us.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.


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