Why it’s been an active year for avalanches
There are two probable reasons why there have been more avalanche deaths this year: More people are enjoying the outdoors in the wilder parts of the West and a “really dangerous snow pack,” said Nikki Champion, a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center.
This year’s avalanche season has likely been more active because of a “persistent weak layer” of snow, she said.
Snowfall was relatively minor in November and December compared to years previously, and because there were periods of dryness in the early winter, that early snowfall doesn’t bond together, she said. That weak layer of snowfall is making up the base of the snowpack across the West, including Utah, Colorado and Montana. All the new snow is sitting on top of that weak base, Champion said.
That layer is more persistent in years past, too, she said. Utah and Colorado are experiencing less snow than usual, so that weak bottom layer is sticking around for months.
The uptick in deaths might also be explained by the increase in people visiting the West’s backcountry to ski and hike. Since many ski resorts have shuttered during the pandemic, “more people are choosing to enter the back country,” Champion said.
How to avoid getting stuck in an avalanche
Champion advises checking with local offices for the avalanche forecast. If you’re set on skiing through the backcountry, bring the appropriate avalanche gear, she says, including a shovel, beacon and probe — and take a partner with you.
The best advice, though, is avoiding areas where an avalanche might occur, Champion said.
“This isn’t really a problem you can outsmart,” she said.