As one avalanche expert puts it, this year’s snowpack has been a recipe to kill.
So far avalanches have claimed 25 people, all but one living in the West.
Across the West and in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming, backcountry slopes received several feet of new snow recently that piled up onto a poor foundation of snow made rotten by long stretches of dry periods during December and January.
“When we get a heavy snowfall it sits on a very poor foundation,” said Bill Radecky, an avalanche educator and guide based in Rigby.
While ski resorts mitigate avalanche hazards, backcountry users must be their own hazard experts.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center recorded 16 slides in the past week, several were touched off by skiers. One avalanche hit Teton Pass on Tuesday.
As snow continues to fall in the mountains, recent avalanche forecasts range from “considerable” to “high.” Advisories for the Greys River/Salt River area say “very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain not recommended.”
American Avalanche Institute director Sarah Carpenter of Victor said the Teton Range area has had several near-miss incidents, but so far no deaths. Earlier this winter a snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche in the nearby Salt River Range. On Feb. 17 the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported another snowmobiler fatality in the Greys River area near Alpine, WY.
“There are some close calls and people getting lucky,” Carpenter said. “The thing that I’m taking away from the accidents that we’re seeing is having really diligent travel protocol and trying to avoid avalanche terrain.”
An avalanche on Sunday claimed the life of a Bozeman, Mont., backcountry skier. Utah saw its deadliest avalanche in about 30 years, on Feb. 6 when four backcountry skiers in their 20s died and another four dug themselves out of a 1,000-foot slide in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City.
“As we look at it as avalanche professionals, (the deaths) are not that surprising,” Radecky said. “It’s the recipe this year between the lack of snow for so long and people getting out trying to make up for the lack of snow in the early season.”
He said some skiers who are skilled resort skiers often lack the skills to ski the backcountry safely.
Carpenter said the long dry spells that left weak layers throughout the West, was not as bad in the Tetons, but there are still many areas for concern.
“When you put a load on it, you’re trying to build a house on a foundation of sand,” she said. “Whenever we put a load on our snowpack, the way I’ve been reacting is I’ve been taking a step back in my terrain choice in terms of where I’m willing to travel in the backcountry.”
Radecky said don’t depend on rescue gear in saving your bacon.
“Avalanche air bags are not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said. “We’ve had a few deaths this season where people were using them and still died. The best system is to avoid avalanche terrain in the first place.”
Radecky and Carpenter offer a few points of advice to winter backcountry users.
• Check daily forecasts (avalanche.org) and follow recent avalanche activity.
• Pass through avalanche terrain one at a time.
• Use rescue gear (beacon, probe, shovel) and practice using it.
• Learn to recognize avalanche terrain and understand when you’re not in avalanche terrain.
“You don’t have to be on the 40-degree slope, you can be under the 40-degree slope to put you in avalanche terrain,” Carpenter said. “If you’re traveling through a gully and you’ve got steep slopes above you, you are in avalanche terrain. … You can basically kick the legs out from the table and bringing the whole slab on top of you.”