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At least 14 people died in avalanches last week, the deadliest week of US avalanches on record

Jessen, Moughamian and Nyman are three of the 14 people who’ve died in avalanches since February 1. It’s the highest number of avalanche deaths recorded in a seven-day period since the US Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center started tracking deaths, according to Karl Birkeland, the center’s director.
Moughamian and three others were killed this weekend when an avalanche swept through a backcountry ski area near Salt Lake City on Saturday. Theirs are the most recent in a string of deaths caused by avalanches in six states:
At least 21 people in the US have died in avalanches since the start of the season in December 2020, according to Avalanche.org, a site from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center that tracks nationwide avalanche accidents.
Avalanches caused devastating damage across the world this week, too: A glacier burst triggered an avalanche in India’s northern Uttarakhand state on Sunday, killing at least 19 people

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.

For more information on how to avoid avalanches and what to do if you’re stuck in one, read this.

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