January and February are typically peak months for avalanches—more skiers, snowmobilers, and other winter enthusiasts die in slides during those months than any other time of the season. This year, we’re already off to a chart-topping high with one of the most deadly Januaries on record.
Thirteen people died in avalanches in January across the western United States, the highest number for that month since 2008, when 19 people were killed during what was one of the deadliest winters in the past 65 years, according to a report issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which records avalanches across the country. There have been two fatal avalanches in February so far, including one that buried someone on a snowbike, or a dirt bike that’s been outfitted with a ski up front and a snowmobile-like track in the back.
A big part of the problem has to do with lots of new El Niño snow sitting on top of what’s called a “weak layer,” or a type of buried snow that can collapse and trigger an avalanche. “A lot of our areas have two persistent weak layers that we’re really concerned about,” says Spencer Logan, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The other problems are that the backcountry is becoming more popular and new snow prompts people to get out, both of which increase backcountry traffic and the likelihood of an avalanche. In a previous study conducted in part by Logan, he found that 70 percent of avalanche deaths happen within four days of another accident. In January, ten fatalities occurred within a 10-day period, including four over the course of one weekend. “Sometimes you can see pretty clear patterns,” Logan says.
Typically, early season avalanche numbers are lower because skiers are waiting for enough snow to cover the ground. They’re also tied up with the holidays. “It definitely feels like there are more people out between January and March, and in some ways, it’s as simple as that: if you put more people in the mountains, more people are going to get caught,” says Mark Staples, the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, which has seen one fatality this year.
Over the past ten winters, an average of 27 people have died each year from avalanche accidents. In 2008 and 2010, 36 people were caught and killed, the highest number on record. Last winter was unusually low, with 11 fatalities, most likely due to below-average snowfall across the country.
We’re already on track for a much higher season than last year, but Logan and other forecasters say it’s still early enough to keep the numbers from skyrocketing. They say that with some basic backcountry education and smart decision making, people can still explore but stay safe.
“As always, we encourage people new to the backcountry to take an avalanche class,” says Benj Wadsworth, executive director of the nonprofit side of the Northwest Avalanche Center. “Generally speaking, people need to consult the avalanche forecast and dial it back when conditions are considerable or above, [and] smart terrain choices are critical at all times.”