There were only 12 Avalanche deaths this winter (2016/17) in the U.S.
The annual average is 27.
So, what happened?
Record breaking snowfall characterized much of the western United States this year, with storm snowfall totals being recorded in feet instead of inches, massive avalanches closing roads all across the nation, and “weather events” that left us all saying “OH MY GOD!”
With all that record snowfall, the stoke meter being pinned at high, and backcountry use currently going through the roof, how did the total amount of avalanche fatalities in the USA end up so low this year?
Are public awareness campaigns getting better? Was it luck that kept fatality numbers down? What are the numbers telling us?
Utah had zero avalanche deaths for the first time in 26 years. California also had zero avalanche deaths.
Would you believe that avalanche fatalities in the USA are actually going down? Especially per capita?
US Avalanche Fatalities Previous 5-Years:
- 2015/ 2016: 30 deaths
- 2014/2015: 11 deaths
- 2013/ 2014: 35 deaths
- 2012/2013: 24 deaths
- 2011/2012: 34 deaths
SnowBrains asked some of the foremost avalanche authorities in the U.S. what they attribute this years’ exceptionally low number of avalanche deaths to:
Forest Service National Avalanche Center:
“As for last season, I’d say there are a number of things at play that are coming together to help keep our fatality numbers low.
First, I think folks are paying attention to the work of our avalanche centers. These avalanche centers are providing great information, and doing so through both conventional and social media platforms. I’d like to think that more folks are paying attention to the information provided by the avalanche centers and that is helping to lower our fatality numbers.
Second, avalanche educators and targeted avalanche awareness programs (like the awesome Know Before You Go program) are reaching more people.
Third, manufacturers are coming up with improved safety equipment, like better beacons and avalanche airbags.
Fourth, some areas of the country had a fairly stable snowpack for much of the year. Of course, many of those areas also had elevated (or even extreme) avalanche danger on some days, so there was certainly the potential for more accidents.
Finally, there’s always an element of luck at play. We did have a lot of close calls with happy endings, so we can’t discount the importance of a bit of luck.
Thanks for spreading the good news. For those of us in the avalanche business, any fatality is too many. Our goal is to push that number as close to zero as we can. But, we are heartened that in these times of exploding backcountry use our long term fatality trend (past 20 years) is flat and that we can have some really low years like last year!”
– Dr. Karl Birkeland, Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center
Sierra Avalanche Center:
“I think avy centers and educators would like to think that we are collectively doing a good job of getting the word out, sharing information and helping people to make wise decisions, but I really don’t know. That was a great year statistically speaking during a big winter and a very encouraging sign. I would not want to hang my hat on that much beyond we had a good one. Maybe things were so dangerous and sometimes hard to access that people played it safe. Maybe people were stuck in traffic and could not go skiing anyway. I don’t know. If that happens for several years in a row then we should examine what has changed and what behaviors have altered to reflect such a change. “
– Don Triplat, Executive Director of the Sierra Avalanche Center told SnowBrains via Email
Utah Avalanche Center:
“Avalanche danger is the opposite of what most people think. Years with lots of snow are actually more stable. Thin snow means weak snow because of temperature gradient metamorphism, which forms faceted snow, the cause of most avalanche deaths. ” – Bruce Tremper, former director of the Utah Avalanche Center and author of “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” told SnowBrains via Email
“Another important observation is that the 5 year rolling average avalanche fatalities has been flat to declining in Utah since 2001, despite backcountry use increasing about 7x and a mix of fairly stable and highly unstable winters. We see a big change in behavior, from people talking about avalanche conditions on the skin track to the presence of rescue gear to popular, easily-accessed, higher risk slopes remaining untracked for weeks after a storm in Persistent Weak Layer conditions. Avalanche awareness and education is working.” – Paul Diegel, Ambassador and Special Projects Director at the UAC told SnowBrains via Email
Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC):
“It’s encouraging to see fewer avalanche deaths this past season, but the numbers could easily have looked very different. At least in Colorado, we had fewer avalanche deaths than the long-term average, but we didn’t see any significant change in the number of people caught. There were many close calls, including 8 full burials where the victim survived. If even half of these close calls went the other way, Colorado would have near the average number of avalanche deaths for a season.The big snow year meant more storm instabilities and less problematic persistent avalanche problems, at least in Colorado. Storm snow avalanches are generally easier to predict and manage in the terrain, but are no less deadly if you’re caught in one.We hope that advances in avalanche forecasting, public communication, and education are paying public safety dividends. Avalanche fatalities do not seem to be keeping pace with the exploding use of the backcountry. This is good news. This blog from the National Avalanche Center is a description of trends over time:
We hope the lower then average number of avalanche fatalities last season is positive indicator for future seasons.”
-Brian Lazar, Deputy Director at Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) told SnowBrains via Email
Avalanche Fatalities Are Actually Decreasing:
“Avalanche fatalities do not seem to be keeping pace with the exploding use of the backcountry.” – Brian Lazar, Deputy Director of CAIC
In the article “US Avalanche Fatalities Stay Flat For The Past 22 Seasons” by the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, we see a graphic description of how avalanche fatalities are “dramatically dropping” in the USA.
The article boldly states that avalanche fatalities have actually dropped 8-fold or more in the past 22 years.
“Assuming a conservative estimate of use increasing 8 times and combining it with our flat fatality trend means our fatality rate (avalanche fatalities per backcountry user day) has dropped dramatically. In fact, this suggests that our fatality rate has dropped by at least a factor of 8 (and probably more) over the past 22 years…”
“If our fatality rate had stayed steady while the use increased we might well expect over 200 U.S. avalanche fatalities per winter!” –The National Avalanche Center
Backcountry Gear Sales Are On The Rise:
Backcountry ski and snowboard gear has been flying off the shelves in the past 10 years due to a huge increase in popularity in backcountry skiing and snowboarding:
“In the U.S., online gear-seller Backcountry.com reported a similar spike in sales as MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op), with a 43 per cent bump in categories such as touring bindings, boots and avalanche beacons.
The most dramatic increase, however, has been in the relatively new category of avalanche survival gear. Backcountry.com has greatly upped its supply of inflatable airbags — meant to keep a skier’s head above the snow — as well as backpacks equipped with breathing tubes and other avalanche survival gear.
“After six minutes [under the snow], you’re toast, so flotation is your best bet of survival in an avalanche,” says Backcountry.com purchasing manager Hud Knight.
According to Knight, his company spent about $500,000 on wholesale avalanche survival equipment in 2013, an impressive rise from the roughly $10,000 in 2010, the year the avalanche gear category was introduced.” – CBC News / Canada article from 2013 titled “Popularity of Backcountry Skiing Worries Some In Industry”
The article goes on to say that better equipment is a possible reason why the sport is gaining popularity.
US Avalanche Accident Statistics:
“Over the last 10 winters an average of 27 people died in avalanches each winter in the United States. Almost every fatal accident is investigated and reported, so the CAIC can present fatality data with some certainty. There is no way to determine the number of people caught or buried in avalanches each year, because most non-fatal avalanche incidents are not reported.” – CAIC
All avalanches, of course, do not solely involve skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. Here is a breakdown of the number of avalanche fatalities by activity in the U.S. since 1950.
There is no clear answer to to the question: “Why were there less avalanche deaths this record snowfall winter of 2016/17?”. It could have been a myriad of factors including:
- More people paying attention to avalanche centers
- Improved avalanche safety equipment
- Deeper/more stable snowpack in many locations
- More public education reaching more people
- People playing it safe due to extreme storms/conditions
- Less access due to closed roads/mt. passes, closed ski resorts
It is clear however, that backcountry skiing and riding and the gear that goes along with it is more popular then ever right now.
US backcountry use has increased dramatically over the past 10 years and US avalanche fatalities have stayed flat for the past 22 years. According to the National Avalanche Center, if our fatality rate had remained constant over the past 22 years, we’d be expecting around 200 US avalanche fatalities per year in 2016/17 given the increase in the amount people in the backcountry.
What’s amazing is that US avalanche fatalities are actually going down. Backcountry use is up, avalanche fatalities are flat, which means that avalanche fatalities are clearly going down per capita.
This is great news and certainly news to be celebrated.
Lets keep this trend rolling:
- More available avalanche education
- Improved avalanche equipment
- More people utilizing their avalanche centers
Campaigns for Avalanche Safety:
Backcountry Access(BCA): North America’s leading manufacturer of snow safety equipment with a motto that education is as important as the gear you buy. Avalanche education resources for recreationists and pros. Awesome videos on avalanche avoidance and rescue, as well as infographic handouts, resources, links and success stories.
S.A.F.E. A.S. Clinics : Clinics is a women’s tailored, beginner to experienced friendly, avalanche awareness and safety clinic.(Men are also welcome.) Clinics touring U.S. resorts seasonally. Scholarships available.
Know Before You Go : A Free Avalanche Awareness Program
Backcountry Zero : Jackson Hole Community Vision to Reduce Fatalities in the Tetons
Popular Safety Slogans:
** These slogans are used to encourage backcountry users to become educated on snow safety, stay current on conditions and come back from their adventures safely. A conservative decision is the best decision considering the immense amount of variables presented in backcountry skiing/ riding, snowmobiling and mountaineering situations.
- “Know the Snow”
- “If You Don’t Know, DON’T GO”
- “Know Before You Go”
- “Ski Another Day”