When the Mountain Falls

Last winter was among the deadliest avalanche seasons on record in the United States and Europe. Why is the number of fatalities rising? And what's being done about it?

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Why would anyone choose to build directly in the path of a potential avalanche? "A problem for the developer," explains Dale Atkins, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Boulder, "is that the runout zone of an avalanche path is a very attractive building site. The zone is at or near a valley bottom, there's easy access, water is often readily available, and it comes with terrific views, since much of the vegetation has been wiped out."

The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, with 40 skiing events planned at Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbasin, and the Soldier Hollow Ski Area in Wasatch State Park, may be the most audacious initiative yet to tempt fate in avalanche country. Security personnel will have to monitor large areas around each event site. That has Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center and avalanche safety coordinator for the Utah 2002 Winter Olympic Games, feeling decidedly nervous. Some of these areas, he says, "are in high avalanche terrain, and very dangerous. It's extremely difficult to control them." He says that "security people not only will have to be good as a SWAT team, but they will also have to be good mountaineers."

Avalanche forecasting and control efforts around Salt Lake City are already stretched thin. The Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, among others, is underfunded, Tremper says. The problem with the upcoming 2002 Games, he points out, is that "the Olympics will double the population of Salt Lake City—we will have an extra 1.5 million people here." And with thousands of security and media people swarming the mountains, he says, "I worry that there will be a notable avalanche accident during the Olympics. The last thing we want is for an avalanche to be the main Olympic news."

That's just the sort of tragedy it may take to wake up recreationists and developers to the need for greater vigilance—and restraint—in avalanche country. As the avalanche death toll rises, the federal government, for one, is beginning to take more interest in the problem. Last December, the Forest Service allocated $185,000 in new funds to the National Avalanche Center for the year 2000 (in addition to agreeing to maintain the $461,000 to partially fund the regional avalanche centers this winter). Doug Abromeit hopes the additional money will help the National Avalanche Center's efforts to pursue larger funding partnerships and expand its forecasting technology. The amount won't cover all of the center's needs, but "it's definitely a start," he says.

While acknowledging that government funding is significantly lower than it was in the early 1980s, Denny Bschor, the director of Recreation, Heritage, and Wilderness Resources for the U.S. Forest Service who also oversees avalanche programs, says, "I wouldn't say that safety is compromised. People still have to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own actions, whether they have avalanche forecast centers or not. Avalanche centers are a tool to help them make better decisions." He believes that the snowmobile, ski, snowboard, and outdoor equipment industries should contribute more support to avalanche safety programs. "We need a lot more help from the partners who have a stake in helping the American public be safer in avalanche country," he says.

Meanwhile, avalanche professionals and scientists know that they are in a race against time as they continue to unravel the mysteries of the ice crystal and increase awareness among backcountry enthusiasts. "People have to get educated," Dan Howlett says. "That's the only way to stop the fatalities in the future. But they also have to recognize the difference between education and experience."

Sam Colbeck is philosophical about the challenge. "Can we get people to stop building houses where they shouldn't, get people to stop going into mountains when the avalanche danger is high? I don't think so. As we develop as a society, people are going to take these risks. We are going to find that we have more and more of a problem. And usually society doesn't do anything until after a problem is well established."  

David Goodman is the author of Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa, and two guidebooks to backcountry skiing in New England.