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Avalanche experts urge caution as snow keeps piling up around the Mountain West

 Avalanches happen when a weak layer of snow forms and heavier layers pile on top of it over time.
Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Avalanches happen when a weak layer of snow forms and heavier layers pile on top of it over time.

It’s the peak of what's been an epic ski season across much of the Mountain West. With more storms on the way and spring breakers soon descending, avalanche experts are urging caution.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports six deaths caused by avalanches so far this season in the Mountain West. The national total reached nine over the weekend after an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade Mountains killed three climbers.

So far, that's fewer fatalities than in some recent years. The 2020 to 2021 season saw 26 deaths in the Mountain West alone, and 12 of those were in Colorado.

“Colorado is the most deadly place, you know, pretty much any year, any time period that you're looking at,” said Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “That is because we tend to have more structural weaknesses that form in the snowpack – weak layers that continue to cause problems over weeks and months rather than days.”

Avalanches happen when a weak layer of snow forms and heavier layers pile on top of it over time, like “rings in a tree,” as Greene described it. Skiers and snowboarders can cause the weak layer to collapse, triggering the sliding of the heavy snow above it. Greene said that’s basically what happened during the 2020-21 season in Colorado.

“We had this very weak structure at the bottom of the snowpack,” he said. “And then later on in the year we had the weather that produced a whole bunch of avalanches.”

This season's four avalanche-related deaths in Colorado occurred in December and January. The 10-year average is six.

“Having four in the kind of middle of January is not a good place for us,” Greene said.

The good news is that there’s been a decrease in accidents since then, as the snow in many parts of Colorado has gotten stronger.

“The avalanche danger rose in those areas in that December period, but has kind of steadily been dropping as the snow packs get thicker and stronger,” Greene said. “And it really makes it harder for humans to impact some of the deeper weak layers in the snowpack.”

Still, Greene is cautious. He expects the likelihood of avalanches to rise, especially given the snowfall expected this week. And there’s a fair amount of winter left.

“If you look at it historically, the deadliest months for avalanche accidents are January, February, March, so, you know, we still have five weeks of that period,” he said. “Some of the deadlier single accidents that we've had have been in April in Colorado, especially in recent history. So, it's far too early to get too excited about the stability of the snowpack.”

Greene said there’s still a chance for heavy avalanches in March and April, and statistically speaking, there could be more deaths to come. He recommends that people monitor weather conditions regularly and pick recreational goals that match the weather.

“It [could be] bluebird and beautiful and there's fresh snow and there is danger lurking below the surface,” he said. “But there's also all these, you know, social and environmental cues that are getting you to relax and drop your guard… You should make sure that you keep thinking about avalanches, even if it's a beautiful day and you're having a great time.

“These are preventable accidents. And by really understanding avalanches, careful planning and having proper equipment so people are prepared in case something does go wrong, we can really reduce the number of accidents.”

To check avalanche conditions across the West, visit avalanche.org.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde