Snow is accumulating on the peaks, Indy Pass is closed for the season, snow guns are roaring at the ski resorts and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is observing its 50th anniversary of avalanche forecasting and education.
In an Oct. 26 press release marking the milestone, CAIC Director Ethan Greene said, “Much has changed over the last 50 years, including how we forecast conditions, our understanding of avalanches, and the technologies we use to share information,” continuing, “But, what hasn’t changed is our commitment to sharing information and educating people about avalanches to help keep people safe.”
Keeping skiers safe in Colorado’s backcountry is a major undertaking. The state’s steep, mountainous terrain and challenging weather patterns often make for unstable and dangerous snow conditions. Tied with Colorado’s popularity with adventurers, it has the highest number of annual avalanche fatalities of any state in the country; typically (though not always) about one-third of the total.
A report issued in August by Brian Lazar, CAIC’s deputy director, listed 11 fatalities in Colorado during the 2022-23 winter season (including one at Aspen Highlands), four more than the 10-year annual average. He told The Sopris Sun that although the “bad years make the data look worse,” overall statistics on fatalities are “generally flat,” when compared with earlier decades. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that there are many more backcountry users nowadays, and, Lazar noted, “fatality rates are going down,” relative to the numbers out there.
Local ski mountaineering and touring pioneer Lou Dawson — who literally wrote the books on off-piste adventuring and whose WildSnow website has long been a leading authority on gear reviews, trip reports and related topics — agreed with Lazar. He told The Sun, “For many years [backcountry skiing] grew at a low double-digits pace” annually, a somewhat unscientific (but still accurate) observation he arrived at by “counting the number of cars at the trailheads.”
The rise in popularity of backcountry adventuring and its improved safety is in part because of continued advances in gear and equipment. Not only did the quality go up, but, as Dawson noted, the weight of a standard ski set (ski, boot, binding), dropped from some 11 pounds per leg in the old days to some three now.
A major improvement was the development in the ‘80s and ‘90s of the tech (or Dynafit) binding. Lighter and much more functional than previous models, it is now widely used in non-telemark ski-mountaineering setups. Dawson wrote in a WildSnow blogpost, “The amount of weight the tech binding saved took ski touring from a somewhat masochistic activity to a sport nearly everyone can enjoy.”
Another important innovation was the introduction of transceivers (avalanche beacons), beginning in the ‘70s with numerous improvements. The devices emit a radio frequency that can be picked up by others who are similarly equipped and can help locate someone who has been buried in an avalanche. This is significant, as the window of time between a rescue and a recovery is small, and beacons have saved many lives. However, Dawson noted, “About 40% of avalanche victims die of blunt-force trauma, rather than asphyxiation, and [beacons often] act as a body finder.”
More recently, skier-activated avalanche airbag packs have also become available. They can save some avalanche victims by keeping users more on top of the snow in a slide but cannot protect them from trauma caused by the slide.
Research and forecasting
Also crucial in reducing avalanche mishaps has been scientific research into the makeup and behavior of snow on steep slopes and significant advancements in forecasting avalanche conditions. Decades of data and measurements of snow conditions collected by researchers such as Ron Perla — known for the “30-degree threshold” (snow on slopes greater than that angle is more likely to slide) — have made predicting the stability of snow on a slope much more accurate.
Likewise, technological advancements have made possible increasingly sophisticated processing and modeling of the data, giving forecasters, like CAIC’s Lazar, “better tools, better forecasts and better ways of delivery” to users. CAIC recently launched a “more stable and mobile-friendly” website.
However, CAIC relies largely for its information on avalanches and avalanche accidents from eyewitness reports. “The number of avalanches varies year by year, but there are thousands [annually], and we record only a fraction of them,” Lazar noted. Likewise, CAIC only knows about accidents that are reported to it.
Education and training
Finally, improved avalanche safety has benefitted from better education and training on how to anticipate and deal with potential avalanche conditions. In a WildSnow blogpost, Perla called it “collective consciousness,” adding, “An increasing number of backcountry users correlates with increasing observations and tests.” This is only improved with better education and training.
Here in the Valley, Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) has long been conducting avalanche-training classes. Greg Shaffran, MRA’s vice president/treasurer and instructor in the classes, said, “We want to preach the preventative aspects of mountain rescue.” He noted that backcountry adventurers not only need to acquire the necessary safety gear (beacon, avalanche probe, shovel) but learn how to use them properly. Lazar added, “Learn how to interpret and use forecasts on current avalanche conditions, and make trip plans based on them.”
MRA maintains a beacon practice course at the base of Tiehack and is planning classroom and on-mountain training in January. Details to follow are at www.mountainrescueaspen.org
The CAIC website (www.avalanche.state.co.us) is an indispensable resource for all things related to avalanches and avalanche safety, education and training. It also includes an online form for submitting an avalanche report.
Avalanche down the left side of a ridge near Independence Pass on Oct. 15, the first human-caused slide of the 2023-24 winter season. Photo courtesy of CAIC