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Better Backcountry Education Brings Down Avalanche-Related Fatality Rate, Experts Say

Photo of skin track.
Annie Putman
When avalanche conditions are risky, backcountry skiers take to lower-grade slopes where a slide is less likely.

As skiers and snowboarders gear up for the season and what looks to be a snowy Thanksgiving weekend, snow safety forecasters are hoping this will be the third season in a row without avalanche-caused deaths in the backcountry.

In addition to the last two years, annual trends show the number of people dying in backcountry avalanches has remained relatively flat, despite the increased popularity of snow sports in avalanche terrain.

Photo of skiers in snow pit.
Credit Annie Putman
Backcountry skiers in the Wasatch dig snow pits to assess the condition of the snowpack and make smart decisions about where and where not to ski.

“The use in the backcountry has skyrocketed,” said Mark Staples, director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center. “We have way more people out there enjoying the snow and the same number dying, so that means the rate has gone down.”

Snowfall over the 2017-18 season was low — just around 60 percent of average along the Wasatch Front, according to Brian McInerny with the National Weather Service. However, the season before that in 2016-17 was one of the snowiest in years and there were no avalanche fatalities then, either.

“Everyone’s on board and promoting avalanche safety and the end result is that when you have a couple people heading out into the backcountry, it’s normal now for them to be talking about avalanche conditions,” Staples said referring to safety messaging from resorts, brands, educators and media.

Slopes in Utah that currently have snow will likely produce avalanches once storms arrive after Thanksgiving, Staples said, because of existing, weak snow layers that will have weight added to them with new precipitation.

Utah Avalanche Center has daily snow forecasts for those going into the backcountry. A storm this weekend is forecast to bring snow and rain to northern Utah on Thanksgiving day and continuing through Saturday.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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