In Outside's November issue, Megan Michelson shares her haunting story about surviving a fatal avalanche in the backcountry of Stevens Pass in Washington's Cascades. It's a thoughtful, in-depth look at a mistake that cost several skiers their lives. In the past couple of decades, avalanche fatalities have increased. Take these stats from Michelson's story:
Last year, 4.2 percent of the nation’s 10.2 million skiers ventured into the backcountry. But with increased use comes increased risk. The average annual number of avalanche fatalities in the U.S. has been slowly notched up since the 1990s, from 15 to the current 29 per year. Last winter saw 34 people, including snowmobilers, die in avalanches, thanks to an especially unstable snowpack across the West. Thirty-seven people died in 2007.
The above video—though long at 20 minutes—does a great job of showing the snow conditions that led to avalanches in Utah last winter. It's a season-long, ride along with the Utah Avalanche Center as their experts study the snow and issue warnings to skiers. At one point, one of the narrators compares conditions after a heavy snowfall on a weak bottom layer to stacking a Cadillac on champagne glasses. The snowpack is fragile and ready to explode down the mountain with the slightest extra push or weight.
For more on avalanches, check out ESPN Freeski's excellent new series "The Avalanche Problem," Michelson's story "Tunnel Vision," the Gear Guy's review of avalanche safety gear, Ryan Stuart's article on whether avalanche airbags should be required gear, Nick Heil's story on media coverage of avalanches, and Brigid Mander's story on forecasting avalanches.
If you're heading out into the backcountry, check avalanche.org for a list of upcoming safety classes.