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"Now is not the time for ambitious backcountry goals or complacent travel beneath large paths," warned the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

By Joelle Goldstein
February 09, 2021 02:49 PM
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snowy mountains
Snowy mountains
| Credit: Getty

The United States has marked its deadliest week of avalanches in more than a century after more than a dozen people died in the snow disasters.

Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 6, a total of 15 people were killed due to avalanches in Washington, Utah, Colorado, New Hampshire, Montana, California and Alaska, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

The fatalities are now the nation's second-most avalanche-related deaths in a seven-day period, the CAIC stated on their Instagram.

The record falls behind the one set in 1910, when 96 people died in Washington at the Wellington townsite on the west side of Stevens Pass, according to CAIC's Instagram post.

"The period... has been exceptionally tragic," the CAIC wrote. "As avalanche forecasters and members of the communities impacted, we express our sincerest condolences and [remain] motivate[d] to fulfill our mission to provide avalanche information, education and promote research for the protection of life, property and the enhancement of the state's economy."

According to the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center, approximately 25 to 30 Americans will die in avalanches each winter.

However, with 22 people already confirmed dead from the snow disasters this season — seven people were also killed by avalanches before Jan. 30, per the CAIC — experts are becoming alarmed at the abnormal frequency and working to figure out the cause.

"This was truly a large unmanageable avalanche," Craig Gordon, a Utah Avalanche Center forecaster, said in a segment that aired on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on Monday. "We have seen an unprecedented winter. It's been unusually dry but that sets the stage for a very weak, shaky foundation."

snowy mountains
Snowy mountains
| Credit: Getty

In Colorado alone, the CAIC said there have been over 500 avalanches reported since Jan. 29.

Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, told ABC affiliate KMGH the issue could be due to the early snowfall Colorado experienced in October, which was followed by a drought.

Because barely any snow fell in the state for a while, Greene said the base layer was very weak and is what the current snowfall is piling on top of.

"Every time we get another snow or wind event and we put more weight on the snowpack, we get some avalanches," Greene explained to KMGH. "And just because that underlying weak layer — the snow that fell in October — is now really, really weak, those avalanches are both very easy to trigger and they're also breaking very wide across terrain features."

Meanwhile, the risk of humans triggering avalanches increases as more people head outdoors — particularly in the western U.S. backcountry — amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, CNN reported.

Nikki Champion, a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center, told the outlet "more people are choosing to enter the backcountry" because many ski resorts have closed down during the pandemic.

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With the likelihood of more avalanches striking, according to the CAIC, Champion urged people to be careful when on snowy mountains, reminding them that no amount of experience can prepare you for an avalanche.

"This isn't really a problem you can outsmart," she said, noting that people should check their local avalanche forecasts, never go alone and bring appropriate gear to help escape if an avalanche occurs, such as a shovel, beacon and probe.

The CAIC also offers a "know-before-you-go" free avalanche awareness program and multiple resources on their website to ensure people can enjoy the mountains and avoid avalanches.

"Now is not the time for ambitious backcountry goals or complacent travel beneath large paths," the CAIC added in an Instagram post. "The avalanche danger looks like it will remain elevated and the chance for very large avalanches will grow. Consider the consequences of a large avalanche in the terrain around you. Have you given that looming slope above enough room? If in doubt, give it more space. Play it conservative."