How the Pandemic Has Changed Backcountry Safety
A study from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center indicated something counterintuitive: experience doesn't always correspond with safety
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Over the summer, COVID-19 sent a flood of new people to the mountains to get away from it all. As the snow flies, many worry that a similar flood of newcomers will cause a deluge of accidents, including avalanches.
But a new study suggests that when it comes to slides, the newbies won’t be the only problem in this unprecedented year. It’s experienced backcountry users who are waking the big man in the white suit more often. And COVID-19 might be one reason why.
During the spring, researchers at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) thought they were seeing more avalanche accidents as the pandemic swept across the country. According to the center’s director, Ethan Greene, they wanted to know if their observation was accurate, and if so, why this was happening. Were ski-resort closures sending a pulse of new, inexperienced people into the backcountry in search of a snow fix? The shutdowns and travel restrictions in Colorado that began March 13 offered an “unfortunate opportunity,” as Greene puts it, for him and Spencer Logan, the avalanche center’s lead scientist, to look at accidents during two very different periods of one winter.
In a study published on the CAIC website in November, Greene and Logan examined the documented avalanche accidents of Colorado’s 2019–20 season: there were 86 total, involving 126 people, six of whom died. To get a sense of how savvy these individuals—skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers, and climbers—were about snow safety, the researchers categorized each in two ways. Whenever possible, they recorded the person’s level of formal avalanche education, and they also ranked the person’s experience based on indirect evidence available in incident reports and interviews.
Greene and Logan weren’t surprised to find that the majority of those involved in avalanches had intermediate or advanced skill levels. As training and experience increase, so does time spent in avalanche terrain, past research has shown.
But they also found something counterintuitive: a “significant change” in the experience level of those involved in avalanches at the tail end of the season. Of the 55 recorded incidents before March 13, 20 involved experienced backcountry travelers. Of the 31 that followed, 22 involved those with intermediate or advanced skillsets. (The “avalanche year” technically runs from October 1 to September 30, but there are about four solid months of skiing between mid-November and mid-March and about two and a half months after that.)
In short, more experienced, educated backcountry users got into more trouble after the pandemic struck. But beginners to the backcountry, as categorized by the authors, were not involved in a larger proportion of avalanche incidents after March 13, they found.
“We didn’t see a big spike from new users,” says Greene. This suggests that a flood of beginners alone won’t drive avalanche accidents this winter, the authors wrote.
What’s going on? Greene and Logan aren’t certain. But they do have some educated guesses.
When the pandemic closed ski areas and restricted other activities in Colorado, easily accessible backcountry areas got more crowded, the authors wrote. Facing this, more experienced recreators “used those skills to push into less-familiar terrain or explore new areas,” they wrote. And that meant accepting more risk in the mountains.
This jibes with the scientific observation that people are willing to accept more risk when they are already in a stressful situation. “The uncertainty of a global pandemic is certainly a stressful situation,” the authors wrote. There is also a phenomenon called the “scarcity heuristic” in human decision-making, Greene says: when something suddenly seems less available (in this case, powder snow or a day away from other people), humans will make different decisions to obtain that thing.
It’s not hard to imagine how this might play out in a weird year like 2020: You roll up to your favorite trailhead for a day of backcountry skiing. There’s a crowd where there never was one before. The new situation flusters you; perhaps you’re even pissed off. You quickly change your carefully laid plan to something new—maybe a less obvious route that crosses a big avalanche path or a ridge guarded by a fat cornice. Your whole day is now different, and riskier.
The study presents another finding that lends credence to these scenarios. Avalanche danger in the U.S. is rated on a scale from low (1) to extreme (5), depending on factors such as snowfall, weather, and the structure of the snowpack. Many accidents occur at a rating of considerable (3). Last winter the state had far more considerable days before March 13 than after. But there were an equal number of accidents on considerable days in the first four months of the season as there were in just the last two and a half. “It suggests that people were willing to go into avalanche terrain at a higher avalanche-danger rating than maybe they would have at other times,” Greene says. “It would suggest that people were willing to take more risks,” if unconsciously, after COVID-19 was in play, he says.
The study has limitations, Greene acknowledges. The number of accidents and participants was relatively small. It looked at only one season. The study also was not formally peer-reviewed but instead was read by knowledgeable colleagues at other avalanche organizations before being posted, he says. (Data sets for studies on avalanche accidents are often quite small, Greene says.)
Scott Schell, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, hopes the paper will lead both avalanche professionals and weekend warriors alike to pause. It’s always tempting to think that other people are the problem, says Schell. This study suggests just the opposite. “We’re all them,” he says.
The study serves as a reminder as we enter an unusual winter: When you’re faced with something new in the mountains—such as more people—stop and thoughtfully reconsider your plan. Don’t just plow forward.
In the meantime, sign up for an avalanche class. (You can find one here. They’re in high demand, so if you can’t get into a course for a while, check out these new educational videos by Ski-Doo and Backcountry Access or consider an online course.) Make sure you have the gear—an avalanche beacon, a shovel, a probe—and know how to use it. And check your local avalanche forecast every time you head out.