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
The backcountry boom has already had deadly consequences: Avalanche fatalities in the United States are rising steeply. From 1950 to 1975, about a half-dozen people died in avalanches each year. In the last five years, however, that average has jumped to 28 avalanche fatalities per year. Since 1985, Colorado has led the nation in avalanche deaths, followed by Alaska, Utah, and Montana. Last winter was among the deadliest avalanche seasons on record. By the end of the season, from November 1998 to June 1999, the avalanche death toll in the U.S. was 32, the highest in 75 years; in Europe, record snowfall created a series of devastating avalanches in the Alps that took the lives of 160 people, a high number even for the most densely populated mountain range in the world.

The grim news is that the avalanche death spiral is likely to continue. But the face of its victims is beginning to change. For the last 30 years, backcountry skiers and climbers have dominated the list of avalanche victims, comprising about 80 percent of those killed. (Almost all the victims are males between the ages of 18 and 35.) But over the past three years, a new trend has emerged: 40 percent of avalanche victims have been snowmobilers. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, sales of snowmobiles in the United States more than doubled between 1992 and 1997 (from 81,946 to 170,325). "The new snow machines are light, fast, powerful, and can go anywhere a skier can go," says Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. "Snowmobiles are also a very efficient avalanche-triggering mechanism, so snowmobilers are getting slaughtered like flies."

Disturbingly, just as more people are venturing into the snowy wilds, both on skis and astride powerful engines, the federal government has beat a swift retreat from the front lines of avalanche safety in recent years. In response to budgetary cutbacks during the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service—which has been the lead federal agency carrying out avalanche research and education efforts since the late 1930s—has withdrawn entirely from doing avalanche research. "The political climate under the Reagan administration was that the government should do as little as possible," says Doug Abromeit, director and one of the two employees of the Forest Service's National Avalanche Center in Sun Valley, Idaho. "Avalanche research was a casualty of that thinking." Since then, avalanche work has been scattered among a hodgepodge of agencies; individual ski patrols assumed the responsibility for safety at ski areas, and state highway departments were forced to start forecasting and controlling avalanche hazards on the roads. The Forest Service shifted its focus to backcountry recreation, providing partial funding to a dozen regional backcountry avalanche forecasting centers; it also oversees the use of military ordnance in avalanche-control programs (like Alta's) and supports a variety of avalanche education programs. But its commitment has been minimal: Last year the Forest Service spent only $461,000, primarily on the avalanche forecasting centers.

Regional avalanche forecasting centers that once relied exclusively on federal funding must now conduct fundraising drives to survive. Sometimes, the money simply runs out. Last April, as thousands of backcountry skiers were flocking to the Rockies, visitors to the Web site for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a nonprofit avalanche forecasting and education resource, were greeted with the message, "Sorry to report we have closed for the 1998-99 season. We are broke!!"

To make matters worse, snow science research, upon which avalanche forecasters base life-and-death decisions every day, has also been crippled by the federal funding cutbacks. In 1985, the Forest Service's internationally renowned Snow Science Laboratory, in Fort Collins, Colorado, was permanently shut down. The pursuit of snow science has been picked up by a small number of scientists at various universities, and by one unlikely participant: the U.S. Army.