After 14 Avalanche Deaths In Seven Days, Backcountry Educators Explain The Risk

Feb 12, 2021

Ninety percent of avalanche deaths are triggered by a person. In the first week of February of this year, avalanches in the United States killed at least 14 people. This is the highest number of deaths in a seven-day period in a hundred years. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska chatted with American Avalanche Institute's Jenna Malone, who attributed this season's high number of avalanche deaths to the gap in time between the early snow in the fall and more recent storms.

Jenna Malone: Then we had a fairly thin or shallow snowpack that was sitting on the ground. And with the cold temperatures, that snow started to rot, so it just became more and more faceted, weaker. And then we bring in snow on top of that, and overload it. So we create that strong snow with a lot of snow all at once from a storm and wind that can compacts the snow. And wind will pick snow up from the windward side of the slope and transport it over to the lee or the sheltered side of the slope and create a slab or an upside down snowpack. So you end up having strong snow over weak snow. And if the slope is steep enough to create an avalanche, then you're just waiting for a trigger,

Kamila Kudelska: Right. End of January, beginning of February, we had 15 people die in the U.S. from avalanches. And I just wonder maybe your thought process in why there were so many in that seven day period?

JM: Certainly, I think the pandemic has driven more people into the mountains. Families and individuals have found that it might be safest to recreate outside. Starting in March with the closure of so many ski resorts, a lot of people turn to ski touring into the backcountry in order to recreate outside in a perhaps safer way from a pandemic standpoint, but certainly in a less controlled environment than a ski resort.

KK: And I think one of the most interesting things of your work I've seen online and one of your most popular presentations is titled, 'It's not chess, it's poker.' So if maybe you can kind of explain what you mean by that?

JM: So I read a fascinating book called, Thinking In Bets by Annie Duke. And she looks at how we can make better decisions living in an uncertain world. And as an avalanche educator, I've found that I have students who want to treat their own personal backcountry decisions as chess, rather than poker. Duke points out in her book that chess is really a game of skill and pattern recognition. All the pieces are there for both players to see. If you lose, it's because you have a lack of skill, not because of a lack of luck. Poker, on the other hand, has a lot of uncertainty. You can have a bad hand, but use skill to win. Or you can have a good hand but be unskilled and lose. There's a combination of luck and skill. And I think that backcountry skiing is the same. There's always some degree of uncertainty that's going to play into our outcomes on a day ski touring. We have great information that we're getting all the time, but there is still some amount of uncertainty that means we can never make that country skiing 100 percent safe. There are things we can do to make it safer, and to tip the odds in our favor.

KK: Right. And I think an interesting part about that is, you know, with avalanches, you can see even expert backcountry skiers get into accidents or even, you know, unfortunately die, even though they have done all these avalanche trainings, they supposedly have done, you know, the safety [training] and they know what to do. So I guess it's just important to be aware that it's just a dangerous sport. But, you know, with that being said, what are some things that people can do in order to try to be as safe as possible?

JM: We all have the capacity to make mistakes. I think arming yourself with knowledge is really important. And one of the hardest things about getting started in backcountry skiing is that more often than not, we don't know what we don't know. It's a brand new world for us. And so it's important to try to take a class. There are a lot of online avalanche education classes available now. Learn how to read the forecast, find mentors in your community. Take a back country one or one or a level one avalanche class. And I think recognize that this is a lifelong pursuit, you're never going to get to the point of mastering the mountains, you know, as you might master a game like chess.

KK: As you mentioned with the pandemic, it seems that more people are going outdoors and more people are discovering backcountry skiing, or snowshoeing or snowmobiling, or whatever it is in the backcountry. If this trend sticks, that there's more people out in the backcountry, do we need to change the way we do it? Is something going to have to change if there's more people in the back country more now?

JM: That's a good question. Probably. I think that as you gain skill, you feel more competent to go further afield, deeper into the wilderness, and further away. And you're then more likely to find solitude and find untracked snow. But scarcity has likely contributed to some close calls, at least in the backcountry this year. So I think this idea that we have a limited resource in untracked slopes, especially with a problematic snowpack, and so a lot of people are attracted to the same terrain. I think increased communication, you know, among touring parties, and being willing to walk further, are both useful skills. My hope is certainly that we have enough public lands and skiable terrain that things don't have to be regulated any more than they are.