In backcountry areas across the United States, from Alaska to Colorado to New Hampshire, hundreds of avalanches rumbled down mountains in early February, ending in the most deadly week for avalanches in more than a century.
Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 6, 15 people died in avalanches in the U.S. — the most in that time frame since 1910, when 96 people died on the west side of Stevens Pass in Washington in a massive avalanche.
In total, 21 people have died in avalanches in the country in the 2020-2021 season as of Monday, including:
- 8 in Colorado
- 6 in Utah
- 3 in Alaska
- 1 in Wyoming
- 1 in New Hampshire
- 1 in California
- 1 in Montana
Last season, a total of 23 people lost their lives in avalanches.
Since Jan. 29, 2021 in Colorado alone, more than 500 avalanches have been reported to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Of those, two were fatal.
The first fatal avalanche in 2021 in Colorado happened Feb. 1 southeast of Ophir, in an area known as The Nose, according to CAIC. Four backcountry skiers were caught, and one was rescued. The three other men — all Eagle County government officials — were buried under nine, 11, and 20 feet of snow, according to a CAIC report. Their bodies were recovered on Feb. 4. The men were identified as Seth Bossung (energy efficiency project manager for Eagle County), Andy Jessen (Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Eagle) and Adam Palmer (sustainable communities director for Eagle County).
The second fatal avalanche of the year in the state occurred on Feb. 4 at the East Vail Chutes. John Kuo, a 41-year-old man from Vail, had been skiing in an area known as Marvin’s when he was caught in the avalanche and died.
These four deaths make up half of the deaths in Colorado in the 2020-2021 season, as of Monday morning. According to the CAIC, in previous years:
- 6 people died in the 2019-2020 season
- 8 people died in the 2018-2019 season
- 3 people died in the 2017-2018 season
- 1 person died in the 2016-2017 season
- 5 people died in the 2015-2016 season
- 3 people died in the 2014-2015 season
- 8 people died in the 2013-2014 season
- 11 people died in the 2012-2013 season
- 7 people died in the 2011-2012 season
Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, said this season has not been a normal one.
“What we've seen this year as far as avalanches in Colorado — we had two weeks with a record high number of human-triggered avalanches in December, and we had four people killed during that month, which is probably in the top 15 months or so, since 1950,” he said. “And then we had another surge of really tragic accidents in the first week of February, where we had two accidents that killed, again, four people.”
The current weak snowpack in the mountains stems from a problem that started back in October, Greene explained. An early season snowfall followed by drought, with little to no snow, led to a very weak base layer of snow. Since then, as snow became more regular, it piled on top of this unstable layer, he said.
“Every time we get another snow or wind event and we put more weight on the snowpack, we get some avalanches,” Greene said. “And just because that underlying weak layer — the snow that fell in October — is now really, really weak, those avalanches are both very easy to trigger and they're also breaking very wide across terrain features.”
For example, he explained, an area that may usually see avalanches 100 or 200 feet wide might connect with other slopes this year to create avalanches that are 700, 800 or even 1,000 feet wide.
He said while there isn’t enough data or a long-enough observation period to connect the avalanches to climate change, the slides are driven by weather, so it makes sense that they could change as the climate changes. However, effects of climate change could lead to both more or fewer avalanches in the future — it’s not totally clear what sort of long-term effect they will have, Greene said.
He said he believes COVID-19 is anecdotally having an impact on winter recreation in Colorado, avalanche activity and human’s interactions with the weak snow in the backcountry. While there’s some concern that people unfamiliar with the backcountry are causing avalanches, Greene said they do not have any evidence that the people involved in avalanches this year are new to exploring the backcountry.
“But primarily, we're seeing people that have a lot of experience at least participating in these sports, whether or not that's lots of avalanche training or lots of experience with avalanches,” he said. “But in Colorado, we've had eight people killed in avalanches so far this year. All of them are over 40 and most of them have many years of experience backcountry skiing.”
No matter if you’re an experienced or new backcountry adventurer, Green said you should check the avalanche forecast before leaving home to ensure your sport or hobby is safe to do in the area you plan to visit. If this involves traveling in avalanche terrain, ensure you’re educated in how to observe and test the terrain you’re on. He said he highly recommends taking a course before venturing out into those avalanche-prone areas, and to bring an avalanche rescue transceiver, probe pole and shovel.
“Everybody in the group needs that equipment and they also need to know how to use it,” he said.
Click here for online resources and avalanche class information.
He said there are a few things to know, especially for beginners, when visiting the backcountry during the winter:
- Check the avalanche forecast on CAIC’s website here
- Know how to recognize avalanche terrain, meaning any snow-covered slope over 30 degrees in steepness
- If you see previous avalanches, there’s a good chance more are possible
- Watch for cracks shooting out from your skies or snowmobile
- Watch for snow collapses and following “rolling” or “whumpf” sounds