Last season, from the Sierra to Quebec, it was hard not to find yourself a knee-deep powder day. Eight Colorado resorts broke annual snowfall records, and many more charted new monthly bests. But along with those feel-good stats, '07–'08 produced another, more sobering set of figures: record numbers of avalanche fatalities, both in- and out-of-bounds.
The U.S. hit a new high last winter with 36 avalanche deaths, breaking the previous record of 35 from 2001–02. Factor in Canada's 16, and North America's total swelled to 52 avalanche fatalities for 2007–08. That includes two from inbounds slides at The Canyons, Utah, and Big White, BC. "We had an unusual winter," says Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center Director Mark Moore.
La Niña weather patterns prevailed in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, pounding those regions with powder from December through April. Silverton Mountain delayed its opening date by two days while it dug out from a single 48-inch storm that stymied snowplows and lift ops. Aspen and Steamboat each received more than nine feet of snow in December, breaking previous monthly records, and an early-January blizzard in California covered Kirkwood with 11 feet over three days. The dumps fell on unstable snow layers formed during a relatively dry November. In Utah, the deep snow actually quieted the snowpack, repairing the weak early-season layers and creating better-than-average avalanche safety (Utah recorded three avalanche deaths last season, one below the state's annual average of four). But elsewhere in the West, instabilities produced a rash of accidents, especially early on. In Washington, the first snowy weekend claimed five lives. "Early season is tough, because everything changes from a benign situation to really horrendous danger in a matter of 24 to 48 hours," Moore explains. "That weekend set the stage for a horrible winter."
Backcountry skiers and snowmobilers made up the majority of last year's avalanche deaths, but a handful of resort skiers also died. Leigh Barnier, a 21-year-old Australian, was buried and killed on January 6 by an inbounds avalanche at southern BC's Big White. And even after patrollers detonated 170 pounds of explosives in The Canyons' Red Pine Chutes - within the resort's boundaries - a 100-foot-wide avalanche released on December 23, killing 30-year-old Jesse Williams. Several more inbounds, post-control slides occurred, though none resulted in fatalities.
Skiing at Mammoth Mountain one thigh-deep day in February, Dave Payne almost snaked the line of a group of snowboarders - but yielding to them may have saved his life. As soon as patrol opened the Drop Out Chutes, Payne beelined for Chute Two. "I knew the slope had the potential to slide, and I didn't want four snowboarders dropping in above me and triggering something," Payne says. So he watched from the lip as they jumped into two feet of untracked pow - and unleashed a slab that engulfed all four. No one was seriously injured, but Payne says he's glad he remembered his avalanche awareness. "Patrol does a good job of monitoring things, but nobody's perfect, and on big powder days, slides can happen."
Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, agrees. "The world's best avalanche professionals are working for Western resorts," he says. "But there's got to be some active awareness on skiers' part as well. Basic avalanche awareness is valuable even if you don't travel into the backcountry."
In- and out-of-bounds, skiers are increasingly venturing into gnarlier, more slide-prone terrain, which Moore and others say contributes to the record number of avalanche accidents. "Steep chutes, cliffs, terrain traps—areas that people weren't skiing five or 10 years ago, we see a lot of people entering now," says John Kelly, operations manager for the Canadian Avalanche Centre. "Even small avalanches there can have grave consequences."
Increased traffic in the backcountry is also to blame, sometimes pushing skiers to hit slopes at unsafe times. Skiers once had the luxury of endless untracked lines, Kelly says, "But now, people are seeking out fresh snow in places that the old-timers knew were better left alone until the snowpack strengthened. Either people are discounting that wisdom, or they're unaware of it."
Avalanche accidents within resort boundaries are extremely rare. But last winter's fatalities may signal a change in the level of responsibility skiers should assume when entering steep terrain, regardless of boundaries. Alberta's Sunshine Village resort already requires skiers to have a beacon, shovel, and similarly equipped partner when entering Delirium Dive and Wild West, two inbounds, expert-only zones. And some skiers, like Payne, are simply choosing to carry avalanche gear everywhere. "Everyone does what they can to avoid dangerous situations," Payne says. "But skiing's a dangerous sport, and avalanches come with the territory."