The number of avalanche fatalities in the U.S. has remained fairly steady over the years, despite more people visiting the backcountry. But one thing that’s changed, according to a recent study, is the median age of victims has gone up.
U.S. Geological Survey scientist Erich Peitzsch, among the study’s authors, said that while many people think the “young and dumb” are the ones dying in the backcountry, “what we found in this work is that the age groups that are actually increasing are the ages of 30 to 39 and even 40 to 49.”
From 1950 to 1989, the median age of the deaths was 27, the study found. In the three decades since, it rose to 33.
Peitzsch said it’s impossible to know what’s driving the trend, but there are several possibilities. One is simply that there are more people in this age group going into the backcountry to ski and snowboard and snowmobile. Another is that older people have jobs and families and want to maximize their limited time off, which can include taking more risks.
In any case, the findings “suggest that programs that target recreationalists over 30 years of age could have a better chance of reducing the number of people killed in avalanches,” the study’s authors wrote.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are,” Peitzsch said. “Everyone needs the background information, the education ... Then wherever you’re recreating, look up the forecast before you head out.”
The study highlights that while the number of people recreating in the backcountry appears to be increasing, the number of avalanche deaths is holding steady.
“What that kind of tells us is that avalanche centers, avalanche forecast centers and avalanche educators are doing a really good job in educating people and getting the message and all the important information out there,” Peitzsch said.
The study was published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.