The avalanche deaths started early last winter, when 38-year-old pro skier Jamie Pierre died in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon in mid-November. Even then, avalanche experts we’re concerned about the possibility of an unstable snowpack lasting throughout the winter. In much of the West, base layers had formed into slick crusts and facets—weak foundations that wouldn’t bond well with the coming top layers of snow. Experts feared that heavy snowfall would sit precariously on top of the early layers, like an F-150 balanced on wine bottles. Adding the slightest weight—a skier or more snow—could cause the weak bonds to break, triggering a slide.
Unfortunately, unstable conditions remained throughout the winter, and they combined with questionable decision-making to lead to a total of 34 deaths from avalanches. It’s not quite that simple, and judgment shouldn’t be passed easily, which is why reading something more substantial is recommended. No single slide received more media attention than the February 19 avalanche at Tunnel Creek, outside Washington’s Stevens Pass ski resort. That slide resulted in three deaths. Two stories covered it best, by showing how a pile up of poor decision-making—or lack of decision-making—led to the fatalities.