Storms surged through the West dropping more than five feet of snow as Christmas arrived and left. Resorts resounded with bomb explosions as ski patrols scurried to reduce the threat of avalanches in the mounting snowfall.
Despite efforts, fatalities from inbounds avalanches at western ski resorts climbed this week-outpacing in December season-long statistics from previous winters. "The odds of an avalanche in a ski area are minute," Doug Abromeit, Director of the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center, told OnTheSnow.com. But the deaths brought U.S. avalanche fatalities to nine already this winter-a third occurring inside resort boundaries.
"This is definitely an atypical year," said Abromeit. He tallied up seven fatalities including the three this month due to avalanches inside resort boundaries since 2004-05. "Prior to that season, we had almost nil inbounds," he added, citing only two since the early 1970s.
Weather ripened avalanche potential this past week as wide-ranging snow storms were ushered in by heavy winds at many Western resorts. Ski patrols bombed wind-loaded and corniced slopes, but unstable snowpacks still turned the slopes deadly. "The ski patrols can minimize the danger," said Abromeit, "but they can't eliminate it."
A Christmas Day avalanche at Squaw Valley killed Randall Davis, a 21-year-old competitive freestyle skier from Tahoe City, Calif. The slide swept him into a tree above Poulsen's Gully after he became separated from his skiing companion.
A slab avalanche Dec. 27 at Jackson Hole killed 31-year-old snowboarder David Nodine from Wilson, Wyo. The slide swept Nodine 200 yards down slope, where rescuers located his body in less than 10 minutes by following his beacon's signal. Nodine had already suffocated under eight feet of debris. A subsequent slide two days later slammed into a mountain restaurant at Jackson Hole. There were no injuries, but the resort partially closed for the day.
A Dec. 14 avalanche at Snowbird killed 27-year-old Heather Gross, a skier from Salt Lake City, Utah. Gross, buried three feet deep for over an hour, died later in the hospital.
In all fatality cases, the ski patrol had already thrown their bombs to reduce the hazard, and other skiers had dropped into the zones. "These incidents clearly show that snow is a very complex medium," said Abromeit. He speculated that widespread snowpack instability could be one cause, but also mused that fat skis have aided skiers in "getting out and going everywhere."
Some skiers and riders now must grapple with changing their perceptions of inbounds.
"The misperception is that everything inbounds is safe," Susan Purvis told OnTheSnow.com. Purvis, an instructor for the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education, has all too often been on the body retrieval end of deadly avalanches in her 13 years on search and rescue missions. "As paying public, we expect to be taken care of and expect the professionals to have done their job. But there's only so much that humans can control, and the rest is Mother Nature."
Purvis points to one lesson that can be drawn from this current round of fatal inbounds avalanches. "We often assume prior ski tracks means safety," said Purvis. "But that just isn't true. It could be the 30th skier that releases the avalanche." The Snowbird avalanche accident report filed with Utah Avalanche Center estimated that 300 people had skied the slope that morning before the avalanche released.
Experts agree that the only surefire method to avoid avalanches is to stay out of avalanche terrain-slopes over a 30-degree pitch. "If you're skiing or riding on slopes over 30 degrees in a ski area on big days, you need to be thinking about the consequences on every run you take," said Purvis. "Have a conversation with your buddies about a plan if the worst case scenario happened."
Purvis also recommends that skiers and riders heading into steep terrain keep their buddies in sight. "Take several turns and stop to wait for each other," she explained, "and pick up an avalanche course to learn the five red flags of unstable snowpacks." Free avalanche awareness classes are offered in most mountain states and at many ski resorts.
She even advocates skiing inbounds with an avalanche beacon, especially if skiing off groomed slopes pocketed with deep tree wells, steep pitches, gullies, and cliffs. But Purvis notes that wearing a beacon is no guarantee. She added, "You have to know how to use the gear."
The rise of inbounds avalanche fatalities worries the experts. "The ski areas, Forest Service, and the National Ski Areas Association will be working closely to sort all of this out and learn from the incidents," assured Abromeit.