Avalanche deaths usually occur at the intersection of science and human nature.
Conditions are largely determined by the snowpack, with the danger often hidden far beneath the fresh powder – out of sight and sometimes out of mind. The promise of fresh air and fluffy snow attracts people.
However, this winter, another factor could be contributing to a sudden surge in deaths: Covid-19.
In the first week of February, at least 14 people died in seven avalanches. According to experts, this was the highest number of avalanche recovery-related deaths in the United States in at least a century.
“Snow cover is the first-order cause – people die because it is very dangerous,” said Simon Trautman, avalanche specialist with the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “The question is the second or third order effect. I don’t know, but I know there are more people this year because of Covid. There’s just no doubt about it. “
Avalanche experts say this season would be dangerous without a pandemic. Early snow, followed by a dry spell in much of the west, created a weak first layer of snow. Recent storms have thrown huge, heavy loads on this weak layer – snow luring people outside, but also threatening to break the support underneath, sending everything downhill in a physics battle between gravity and friction.
A single misstep on a slope that tries to give way silently can be the narrow line between thrill and tragedy.
For the past decade, an average of 25 people have died in avalanches in the United States each winter. That season, 21 died by Sunday, reports the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Fatal avalanches are almost always triggered by humans. The people trapped in them are usually among those who accidentally set the snow in motion.
On Saturday eight ski tourers were trapped in one Avalanche in Utah; four died. On the same day, a group of snowmobilers in Montana was trapped in a slide that killed one of them.
Three Colorado skiers were killed in an avalanche early last week. The next day, an avalanche killed three in Alaska. A day later, two people were buried in California and one died.
Experts analyze the anecdotal evidence and seek answers that go beyond the scientific danger of this winter’s snowpack.
“It’s difficult to make a direct link to Covid, but I think we can make an indirect link,” said Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center. “Across the country we’ve seen a sequel to what we saw this summer, and more and more people are going to our public land. This winter more and more people drove into the hinterland, whether on skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles. And with more people, you have greater potential for people to deal with avalanches. “
Most of the casualties were seen in the backcountry, experts said, shattering suspicions that they were poorly equipped new adventurers desperate for socially distant outdoor activities. Most were men in their forties and fifties, although the Utah victims on Saturday were all in their twenties and included two women. According to the victims, the victims had recommended safety equipment for beacons, probes and shovels.
Apr. 9, 2021, 4:59 p.m. ET
All of Colorado’s eight victims that winter were men over the age of 40. All but one had significant backcountry experience, according to Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
And while some accidents have happened outside of ski resorts, where chairlifts and loose boundaries provide quick access to enticing powder runs (called “sidecountry”), most have been in remote areas that require hiking or climbing.
This has led some experts to suspect that seasoned ski tourers who want to stay away from the unusual crowds of this season may find themselves digging deeper into unfamiliar terrain at a time of extremely dangerous conditions.
“It’s a lot of guesswork, but it’s really part of the discussion we’re having about this stuff,” said Birkeland.
There’s also speculation that nearly a year worth of restrictions related to the coronavirus, which causes the disease, Covid-19, could increase the likelihood of people taking risks. On January 30th a The 57-year-old experienced skier died in an avalanche outside the boundary of Park City Mountain Resort.
His ski partner, who witnessed the slide and was unable to save him, said the coronavirus pandemic had “had an impact”.
“I now notice that I am exhausted from the more than 10 months of almost constant stress that Covid brings with it when I am worried about my family, my friends, my work, etc.,” said the partner, who does not identify has been in the accident report. “Plus financial burdens, school closings, no physical contact with family members / friends and so on. As a result, my typical training, motivation and mental reflection were much lower than in a normal fall / winter. “
Such correlations are imprecise. In Europe, where an average of 100 people die in avalanches every winter, 56 died this season. That’s one more than all of last winter, but far fewer than the 128 who died in 2017-18.
The head of the Swiss Mountain Guide Association told reporters last month Covid can cloud the decision-making process of backcountry skierswho may be overly eager to go outdoors and who are tired of free time restricted by virus rules.
Greene, of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, believes there may be something compounding what he calls for this year’s snowpack in a decade.
“The environment we are all in is stressful,” said Greene. “It affects the way you interact with people in the grocery store and how you make decisions when you are in avalanche areas.”
Backcountry mistakes don’t have to be big to be fatal.
In typical times, the difference from season to season is almost entirely due to the snow cover, which can change significantly from slope to slope depending on the complex combinations of angle of inclination, sunlight, wind, temperature and other factors. (A common factor: most avalanches occur on slopes with inclines between 30 and 45 degrees. Any steeper and falling snow usually does not accumulate in the required amounts. Flat and snow often does not move due to gravity.)
Avalanche forecasting is carried out on site by around 65 full-time forecasters, most of whom work for the US Forest Service or the state of Colorado.
The conditions in the Colorado Rockies can be completely different from, for example, the Washington Cascades or California’s Sierra Nevada.
But this time of year was unusual in that a huge chunk of the west received similar early snowpack that was exposed to the elements for weeks. This generally created a thin layer of fragile, sugar-like crystals.
Like a house on bad foundations, the rest of the season’s snowpack sits precariously on this layer.
The National Avalanche Center prepares the latest forecasts in an interactive map on his homepage.
“The last week has been fascinating because when the storms broke you could see the different parts of the country light up and turn red, or in some cases even black, which is the highest hazard rating,” said Trautman. “You can see that this wave of instability and danger is just rolling through the central part of the west. It’s not that it doesn’t happen at other times, but the way that it happened has been very dramatic. “
And deadly. While the biggest storms are over, the weak layer of snow is likely to last all season. That’s the science.
The human nature part of the equation is the variable that determines how many more lives will be lost.