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This season, up to this point, is a real contrast to last. Fatalities are well below the average for the past 10 seasons. There have been 6 fatal accidents with 9 deaths, while the average is 12 and 14. Three of those incidents had multiple fatalities, 2 in each case.

2021-22 Fatalities as of Feb 18
Full size graph, pop-up

The Role of Snowpack

Last seasons fatalities were almost entirely in the continental and transitional snowpack climate regions, which is typical. The early season snowpack which was typically thin and weak persisted until late January when storms overloaded it. When the snow arrived it was not heavy and deep enough to bury or strengthen the weaknesses and a treacherous situation with a slab sitting on top of a layer offering no support was widespread.

This season many areas had heavier snow arrive earlier. With heavier snow the underlying weaknesses gained strength and were buried deeper. Five of the six fatal incidents were still in the continental snowpack regions but that is not unusual in any season.

These comments on snowpack are of course very broad and relate to the overall western US situation. At various times the various local regions certainly still had various problems. Four of the six incidents did occur during a local forecast of Considerable. (One occurred during a Low rating, one was in an area with no official rating but was probably Considerable.)

Incidents and Education

This topic deserves a post of its own but here a short commentary is worthwhile.

Last season the majority of fatalities appeared to occur among groups with a great deal of experience and presumed avalanche education at some point in their past. Despite all the hype about the pandemic pushing "newbies" into the backcountry such people were not showing up in fatalities in any unusual percentage.

This season has a smaller number of incidents but the education level appears to vary, to the extent it is known.

The first incident in Washington involved a group in which, according to initial preliminary reports, most or all had taken recent avalanche safety training. No details of when or where were provided, and the final report does not contain this information.

The second was a group of young people in an area with limited forecasting and education. They were not carrying safety equipment so their level of avalanche education was most likely limited.

A later incident involved snowshoers in Colorado who had limited avalanche education, if any. They were also not carrying safety equipment, although with both of them buried it would not have mattered much.

An incident in Montana involved a group of snowmobilers with very little avalanche training, although the danger rating was Low at the time.

So we see one group with recent education that made some poor choices after some disagreement over the route within the group. And we see a few groups without much education.

In some cases the complete Level 1 may not be the best option. The snowshoers would have been well served simply by taking the Avalanche Institute short module courses on Avalanche Terrain and on Safe Travel and Rescue. Given that they probably never sought out steep terrain this simple background would have made them think enough about their plan, the terrain around them, and about spreading out a sufficient distance.

In the case of the young people there simply is not much outreach in their area. The Forest Service spends (and raises) significant amounts of money on information services in areas where there is more demand. And this is all managed locally so those areas that can raise funds can provide more. There is no coordinated effort to reach out to less populated areas.

In any event, this season has seen a higher percentage of incidents involving groups with less education while last season, with it's well publicized treacherous snowpack and incidents, saw more experienced and educated people involved.

Eastern US Avalanches

While they were not fatal there have been a couple reports of avalanches in the eastern US. We are aware of one small one involving a skier in Vermont and a potentially serious one in the Adirondacks which buried one skier completely. Avalanche terrain is limited in the east. In the Adirondacks it is essentially limited to the slides on some of the high peaks. With the terrain being limited and obvious incidents are not common but more people are venturing out onto these slides. Fortunately this group was prepared.