The nine deaths from avalanches across the Western U.S. in the past 10 days have put a halt to what had been the least deadly season for avalanches in the past 16 years.
Most recently, in Colorado, the bodies of two missing skiers were found Sunday after a large avalanche buried them alive the day before in Lake County. Another death was reported Sunday in Idaho, where a snowmobiler was caught in a slide and died.
For most of the winter, due primarily to the dramatic lack of snow in the Western mountains, only six people had been killed in avalanches, according to data from the National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont. This was the lowest number through the first week of February since at least the 1998-99 winter season.
However, with the nine deaths in the past week or so, the winter’s total is now 15, which is about average.
“It was a quiet first half of the winter for snow,” said avalanche meteorologist Dennis D’Amico of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle. “Our snowpack was about 15% of normal,” D’Amico said, “but in the last week or so, it’s really turned around.”
“A lot of snow in a little amount of time, you get avalanches,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Burke in Seattle.
On average, about 28 people a year die in avalanches in the U.S. according to Brian Lazar of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He said the deadliest seasons on record were 2007-08 and 2009-10, when 36 died in each of those winters.
AVALANCHE DEATHS: 2 skiers killed in Colorado
Compare this to the 1950s, when avalanche deaths were first tracked, when an average of four people died each year in avalanches.
Why the uptick? An “explosion” in backcountry skiing, snowboarding, climbing and snowmobiling, said D’Amico. “There are more people going out into the backcountry now.” D’Amico said.
Snowmobilers lead the list with twice the number of deaths as any other activity, according to data from the Utah Avalanche Center. Most of the victims are men in their 20s, Lazar said.
Also, most people caught in avalanches are the cause themselves when they go out on unstable slopes, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. In fact, in 90% of avalanche incidents, the victim – or someone in the victim’s party – triggers the avalanche, the Utah Avalanche Center reports.
Avalanches are particularly deadly in the Pacific Northwest: Of all the types of natural disasters in Washington state, avalanches kill more people than any other, based on data from 1950 to the present from the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.
More heavy snow is predicted throughout the Western mountains later this week, according to Lazar.