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Numerous recent articles in the mainstream media paint a bleak picture of a catastrophic avalanche season in terms of fatalities. It is being blamed on the covid pandemic, like so many other things these days. This blog article will take a look at just how bad the current season really is, and why the number of fatalities alone may not be an honest indicator in the absence of a bit of a deeper look. The question of why the season is the way it is will be left, for the most part, for a follow up article.

The number of fatalities as of March 1, in the US, is 33. Given that the average for the previous ten years is 14.8, and that the previous high during those years was 26, this does seem to be extremely tragic.

However, the number of fatal accidents as of March 1 is 25. While this is significantly higher than the ten year average of 13.5 there is a large amount of variation over those ten seasons. The previous March 1 high was also 25. So in terms of the number of incidents the 2020-21 season ranks at the top so far, but it is not above the previous high. A bad season for sure, but not as overboard as it’s being made out to be.

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The role of multi-fatality incidents

The reason the number of fatalities makes the picture look even worse is that there have been 3 incidents with 3 or 4 fatalities, which is highly unusual. Most fatal incidents result in one, or sometimes 2, fatalities. This becomes clear when comparing the difference between fatalities and incidents.

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This year it is 8, the only previous season out of the past 10 which had a difference of more than 2 was last year, 2019-20. The only reason that season had more fatalities was due to a single in-bounds ski area incident in which 3 guests died. If that were omitted the difference would be 2, in line with the previous 9 years. Ski area incidents are actually quite different since there is a serious (and mostly successful) effort to professionally mitigate the avalanche hazard. However, when an avalanche does occur there is a higher chance of more people being involved.

The only other incident with more than 2 fatalities prior to Mar 1 in the previous 10 seasons was in 2011-12 when 3 skiers died in Washington State. If we look at all incidents over the 10 seasons we still only find 5 all together (out of a total of about 211 incidents), so it is clearly not a common occurrence. Yet this season we have 3 such incidents.

Did a lapse in “safe travel protocols” play a role?

One professional was quoted in the press recently as stating that if people were following “safe travel protocols” such as exposing one person at a time to a hazard we would have 7 less fatalities. While this is true in a very basic sense it is overly simplistic without considering the factors behind some of the cases.

In one case 3 climbers died. Climbers often do not have the option of limiting their exposure. They are ascending a route over a long period of time. There may be spots for temporary refuge on some routes but the team will inevitably all be exposed for considerable amounts of time. In our “Safe Travel and Self Rescue” short course we point out that tradeoffs sometimes need to be made. Our Climbers Course specifically addresses the importance of advance planning given the absence of many options once on a climbing route. (That course specifically focuses on spring mountaineering conditions given that most such accidents occur later in spring.)

Of the five incidents with more than 2 fatalities over the past 10 years 2 of them were climbing incidents. Both were in spring (May and June) and killed 6 in one case and 4 in the other. Another two of the five were backcountry ski touring incidents, and the fifth was the ski area incident last season.

In another of the multi-fatality there were two groups involved and neither was aware of the other. This was in Utah in an area where this has been a scenario waiting to happen for many years. One of the case studies in our “Safe Travel and Self Rescue” course happened in the same area and is very similar in some ways, although in that case everyone skied away unscathed. In the case study one group approached the ridge from the south and remotely triggered a large cornice overhanging the north side. The cornice fall released a large avalanche which almost reached a group below the slopes on the north side. There is really no way to mitigate the risk that comes from another group you are unaware of. Today the use common radio frequencies is sometimes promoted to help with this. This is simply a sign of how overcrowded certain backcountry locations have become. It is not new or unique to this season, the case study we use was many years ago and common frequencies have been starting to catch on in recent previous seasons.

Both groups in this seasons Utah incident were being conscientious about the avalanche danger. One group was clustered in what they thought was a safe location while one skier at a time crossed and area of concern. The other was about to stop and consider their plan at a point prior to the slope steepening. Like most incidents this season this was a case of a very weak snowpack with a weak base which has been easy to trigger and propagates failures a long distance. Either group alone may have been caught, but without 2 groups it is unlikely there would have been four fatalities.

The third multi-fatality incident does not appear to have any good explanation for not following safe travel protocols and going one at a time, at least from what we know from the reports. The group was supposedly regrouping in a presumed safe spot and one person went ahead and started down. Others then followed. It does not sound like there was any discussion about how to proceed safely at that point.

Conclusion, and where do we go from here?

In conclusion, the season so far (as of March 1, 2021) is tied for the worst to date for the number of fatal incidents. The number of actual fatalities is unusually high due to 3 incidents in which 3 or 4 people died, which is not a common occurrence. However, in two of the three cases there is some explanation for why multiple people were exposed to the danger. The discussion here has only addressed safe travel protocols and not any other factors such as the choice of route or terrain, the snowpack, or any other factors which might pertain to risk exposure but not necessarily to having multiple fatalities.

Can we blame the season’s problems on covid, as the media and some of the people they quote seem to want to do? That requires a review of some other factors, most notably the nature of the snowpack this season and the experience or lack thereof of the people involved. It is a topic for a separate post which will follow.

Where do we go from here in terms of the numbers? In terms of the number of fatalities it will probably be the highest over the past ten years. Currently there are only 2 seasons with more than 33 for the entire season – one with 34 and one with 35. However, in terms of the number of incidents it may or may not set a high. The two seasons with the most incidents had 28 and 29. It does seem likely we will exceed that, but it is not likely to be as dramatic as the number of individual fatalities.

Finally it should be noted that there is a lot of variation, which results from many factors. The number of incidents ranges from only 10 in 2014-15 to a high of 29 in 2015-16. The number of fatalities ranges from a low of 11 in 2014-15 to a high of 35 in 2013-14. There are a variety of factors involved, with the nature of the snowpack being paramount. And sometimes particularly tragic incidents do come along – one reason for the high number if 2013-14 was a single incident which killed 6 climbers in May. As the graph below shows, there has also been no clear trend in the number of fatal incidents over the time period of 10 years – some years are better and some are worse throughout the period.

Total Season Fatalities, last 10 years
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