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Avalanche Deaths Spike In Western States


The Western states have seen more avalanche deaths this season than usual. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray reports.

Avalanche Forecaster Spencer Logan is with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“So we’ve had 23 fatalities so far this season, which would make this one of the worst avalanche seasons in recent history,” Logan says.

Logan says it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for the spike in deaths, but that the rate fluctuates year-to-year. Avalanche season, typically lasts from December to March, with January being the most dangerous.

“When we look at them over 15 years or so, about 60% of the avalanche fatalities occur prior to March 1st,” Logan says.

Checking daily avalanche advisories, Logan says, is essential for anyone planning to venture into the backcountry.

And with the high number of avalanche deaths so far this winter in the West and Alaska,  Avalanche Forecaster Brandon Schwartz says along with checking avalanche forecasts, having the right gear and training are essential for survival.

Schwartz is with the Sierra Avalanche Center. He says that assessing avalanche risks is a science that varies day to day.


“We make those daily avalanche advisories, by studying the snowpack, and it’s layering characteristics,” Schwartz says, “and how those layers that are created by various weather events are interacting with each other, and how that affects snow stability.”

More than 90% of avalanches are triggered by people and can accelerate up to 70 miles an hour. Schwartz says there’s only a narrow window to get help.

“Folks can’t even wiggle a finger when they’re underneath the snow, so you need someone else to dig you out. And because you’re under the snow you only have about 10 or 15 minutes for survival,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz says that about a quarter of the people caught in avalanches die of blunt force trauma.

Go to www.sierraavalanchecenter.org for daily avalanche advisories. To learn more about avalanche safety, go to the  Know Before You Go avalanche awareness program website at www.kbyg.org.

Anh is a contributing editor for the KUNR news team and has been with the station since 2014. She is an alumna of the Boston University School of Public Health and Teachers College, Columbia University.