Jim Frankenfield

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There have been 6 fatal avalanche incidents so far this season. As I write this reports are coming in of a seventh with possibly 3 deaths but details are still emerging. (Followed by a few more now too.) The purpose here is to see what we can learn from the first six accidents taken together, about things to be conscientious about and things about this season. The post will not critique any particular incident in any detail.

Observations will be broken down into the categories most avalanche courses are based on: Safe Travel, Equipment and Rescue, Snowpack, Terrain, Weather, and decision making. Some of these categories are more instructive than others.

Reports for each incident are on avalanche-center.org for members, with official and media reports. The same information can be found elsewhere searching one.

1- A snowmobiler in Wyoming, Dec 18
2- A backcountry skier in Colorado, Dec 18
3- Two backcountry skiers in Colorado, Dec 19
4- A backcountry skier in Colorado, Dec 26
5- A side country snowboarder in Utah, Jan 8
6- A side country skier in Utah, Jan 30


The term “side country” in both cases applies to using a ski lift and accessing the terrain outside the ski area with a return to the lifts at the bottom.

Demographics

There has been a lot of attention drawn to the potential for new inexperienced skiers and snowboarders rushing into the backcountry this year. The theory seems to be that there are a large number of “ski area refugees” who can’t lift ski due to covid closures and limitations. This has not been the case when it comes to fatalities so far. None of the groups caught in these incidents were inexperienced and unable or unwilling to ski inbounds. (The additional incidents do not seem to change this observation either.)

It’s also not the case that these people were young and inexperienced. All or almost all were in their 40s and 50s and experienced at their activity of choice. Given the demographic one would assume most had some formal avalanche education although we have no confirmation of this.

Only one incident and one death were from snowmobiling, the rest were skiing/snowboarding.

As of Feb 3 the season was not especially deadly compared to the past ten years. The 10 year average is 9 incidents and 9.6 fatalities, this year we have 6 incidents and 7 fatalities. However, this may change when the current surge of new incidents is accounted for.

Safe Travel Practices

The first thing worth noting is that 3 of the 6 incidents (1, 2 and 4) were solo travelers. Two of them (2 and 4) set out solo. The other separated from his group and was out of sight, making him a de facto solo rider. (Another in that group had left for home, presumably solo as well.)

The lesson is not necessarily to never go alone, although some will take that as a conclusion. Some of us do choose to travel alone and take responsibility for that decision. One of the solo skiers (2) was a highly experienced patroller who had toured on his own many times. He presumably understood the risk, and had the ability to make a considered decision. The main lesson is to be certain you fully understand the ramifications of solo travel. Don’t under-estimate the possible outcomes of even minor incidents. This experienced skier had safety gear and may have survived with partners. A second lesson in the case of the snowmobiler is to be aware that anyone separated and out of sight of their group is solo and taking the same risk, probably unintentionally.

The first side-country incident (5) involved a skier starting down the slope above the snowboarder who was caught. This is a bad practice – having a person above another. It’s not clear after the fact if the person above started the avalanche, the victim may have hit a weak spot anyway. In the second side-country incident the victim skied down a short steep pitch while his partner watched from a safe location, so that group followed a good practice. It meant the second skier was not caught, had a last seen point, and was able to make a good rescue effort.

Equipment and Rescue

In two cases (4 and 5) the people involved had no safety equipment. One was a solo skier who probably died of trauma (4) but had to be found by probing when the rescue team came. The other case (5) required explosives to secure the area and then an avalanche dog found the snowboarder.

In two cases the victims were able to be found later because they had beacons. The first solo skier (2) was found by another party which became concerned when he was not back at the starting point. If they had actually observed the avalanche they may have found him alive. It’s always worth wearing a beacon, even solo. The two skiers caught together (3) were also found later using their beacon signals.

At least two incidents involved ABS systems. The snowmobiler in WY (1) activated his and the balloon and a leg were partially visible on the surface. Had he not been alone he could have been found quickly. (Unfortunately, however, the cause of death was trauma to the neck.) The two skiers caught together (3) had deployed ABS systems but since they were both buried by a large avalanche from above their safety equipment did not help them survive. Since they were found via beacon searching it seems the ABS was not easily visible. These are designed to keep a person on or near the surface in the flowing snow, they are not so useful if it all comes down from above on top of a person.

The only incident involving companion rescue was the last one (6). Reports paint this as an excellent effort which was unfortunately not successful. Since the pair followed good skiing protocols the survivor was well positioned to search for his partner. He had a last seen point from spotting victim. He was able to use a beacon to get close enough to see a boot sticking out of the snow, and a fine search or pin point probing was not needed. He did comment later on how exhausting it was to do the search, the digging, and then CPR for over 30 minutes at the end of a day of skiing.

Snowpack

All of these incidents occurred on thin snowpacks with a weak early season base layer that was not supportive of more recent snow. This is a typical set-up in a continental snowpack and a classic structure in places like Colorado. Transitional regions such as Utah sometimes have a thicker snowpack by January which is not so likely to fail at the base. However, this season the snowpack remains unusually thin there even into February.

It is important to know the difference between continental and maritime snowpacks, any good avalanche course emphasizes this throughout. It is related to weather, terrain choices, and decision making. All of these are different in different snowpack climates. In a transitional region it is important to realize that some years may be closer to maritime and others closer to continental, and to know what you are currently dealing with.

The avalanche bulletins for all of these incidents explained the current situation. They often go into more detail, but the basic idea should be clear to experienced and educated skiers and riders. A thin snowpack is very likely to have a weak base.

These conditions lead to a “minefield” situation. The slab you are travelling on will have certain weak spots. As long as you don’t hit one you’re fine. But if you do hit one and trigger a failure it can propagate a long distance. This “minefield” idea is usually covered in a Level 1 course, often in conjunction with safe travel protocols. The experienced solo skier (2) had skied the slope twice, closer the edge. On his third run he ventured out a little bit past those tracks and managed to hit a “mine”.

Terrain

All of these incidents occurred on clear avalanche terrain, none of them were terrain traps which were hard to discern. In almost all of these cases the victims were on the actual slope at the time of the avalanche and probably played a role in triggering it. The possible exception is the party of two near Durango, which appear to have been buried by an avalanche from above which they may or may not have triggered remotely. Remote triggering, including from areas below slopes, is a very real possibility in this type of snowpack.

At least one of the more recent spate of avalanches did involve a terrain trap. The danger, or the extent of it, may not have been entirely clear. And traveling one at a time where they were may not have been realistic.

Weather

The role of weather was mainly in the formation of the weak snowpack. It does not appear to be an immediate cause of factor in the actual incidents.

Human Factors

Good planning is essential, especially in these kinds of snowpack conditions. Each group’s plans will vary according to their avalanche training and skills, the information available, their risk propensity, and other factors. We don’t know much about the planning process of most of these groups.

The first side-country incident (5) involved two people who took a lift and left the ski area, with no safety gear. Despite signs and warnings at the gate. The area they skied is commonly accessed and is easily reached. Numerous other incidents have occurred there in recent years as well. In cases like this there is often no planning for backcountry conditions.

If you leave the ski area boundary you are going into uncontrolled and unmanaged backcountry, no matter how well used it may be and how many tracks you see. Unfortunately, many who just see an easily accessible area with tracks and a beaten path back to the lifts do not realize this. It’s hard to find fault with this on the part of unaware lift-served skiers and possible solutions will continue to be debated.

The second side-country incident (3) involved an interesting decision making situation. At the point where the victim decided to enter and ski the steep pitch the two had discussed their route. The survivor felt they should continue down the ridge they were on and not ski the steeper slope, while the victim wanted to ski it. The final decision seems to have been that the survivor would spot the victim while he went ahead on the slope then descend via the ridge to meet again.
In hindsight the survivor felt they should have reached a single common decision and not diverged as they did. This is the kind of thing every group needs to manage on their own. Coming to a common decision could have had a positive outcome if they both went down safer terrain. But if they both skied down the steeper part the outcome could have been the same. Or worse, depending how well they followed safe travel protocols.

In at least some professional operations each guide can eliminate terrain. So in a morning guides meeting anything any professional crosses off the list is off for the day. This is one way to make a group decision – anyone can rule out terrain without dispute but the same is not true for using terrain. This may not be appropriate for all groups in all situations, but it’s something to think about.

So one lesson here is to consider the group’s decision making processes before a trip, in the planning stage. Know your partners and group, and know how you’ll approach important decisions. It may be different in different groups, so today it might work differently than it did yesterday with a different partner or group.

Conclusion

The snowpack throughout the transitional and continental regions in the US remains thin, poorly supported, and very sensitive. Take this into account in your planning.

In these conditions it’s easy to get caught off guard so travel protocols are especially important. It’s easy to read about them in a book or have them enumerated in a class. Implementing them reliably is not quite so easy.

If you are inclined to travel solo think carefully about it this season. It might not be the best time for it, and if you do choose to do it keep your plans very conservative.

Finally, pay close attention to your planning and decision making. Come to sound decisions as a group after listening to all reservations anyone may have.