U.S. avalanche fatality trend is flat for the past 22 seasons

Where were you during the winter of 1994/95?  Knox Williams, Bruce Tremper, and Mark Moore headed up the three big avalanche centers in Denver, Utah, and Seattle.  Jim Kanzler was running the center in Jackson Hole, Brad Ray led the avalanche center at Mount Washington, and a small avalanche center I started in Bozeman was in its fifth season.  Avalanche centers didn’t even exist in the Chugach, at Tahoe, or Mt Shasta.  Almost all backcountry skiers used telemark gear, with some (including yours truly) in leather boots.  Snowmobiles didn’t come close to the machines of today in terms of power, mobility, and weight.  Most ski areas had closed boundaries and the term “sidecountry” wouldn’t be widely used for more than a decade.  Finally, the Internet was only just starting to gain traction, with the first avalanche advisories being posted to the web at the end of that season.

Would it surprise you if I told you that since that 1994/95 winter the annual number of U.S. avalanche fatalities has not increased?  That’s right, for the past 22 seasons as we’ve transitioned to smart phones, social media, lightweight AT gear, powerful snowmobiles, and a literal explosion in backcountry use, the number of seasonal U.S. avalanche fatalities have remained steady (Figure 1).  Also interesting is that the number of snowmobile fatalities is flat over this time period (Figure 2), while there is some evidence that the number of backcountry skier/snowboarder fatalities may be rising slightly (Figure 3). 

Figure 1: U.S. avalanche fatalities from the 1994/95 winter through the 2015/16 winter.  The slightly decreasing least squares trend line is not statistically significant (p = 0.7), indicating that there is no statistical evidence of a change in the number of avalanche fatalities during this time period.

Figure 1: U.S. avalanche fatalities from the 1994/95 winter through the 2015/16 winter.  The slightly decreasing least squares trend line is not statistically significant (p = 0.7), indicating that there is no statistical evidence of a change in the number of avalanche fatalities during this time period.

Figure 2: The number of snowmobile avalanche fatalities, like the overall fatality rate, has not changed over the past 22 seasons.  The slightly decreasing trend line is not statistically significant (p = 0.6).

Figure 2: The number of snowmobile avalanche fatalities, like the overall fatality rate, has not changed over the past 22 seasons.  The slightly decreasing trend line is not statistically significant (p = 0.6).

Figure 3: The number of backcountry skier and snowboarder avalanche fatalities is also relatively flat, though there is some statistical evidence (p = 0.07) of a slight increase over the time period.

Figure 3: The number of backcountry skier and snowboarder avalanche fatalities is also relatively flat, though there is some statistical evidence (p = 0.07) of a slight increase over the time period.

This flat line would be no big deal if backcountry use was also flat.  However, anyone who has been in the backcountry for the past 22 years knows full well that – anecdotally of course – use has skyrocketed.  Although it is challenging to get good, solid numbers on dispersed winter recreation, we can utilize avalanche advisory usage as an imperfect proxy.  For example, over the past 22 seasons the Utah Avalanche Center reports a 12-fold increase in avalanche advisory usage, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s usage increased 17-fold, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center has seen a 36-fold increase, and the usage at the Northwest Avalanche Center increased 60-fold!  Clearly, some of these increases can be attributed to the ease with which folks can obtain avalanche information these days, but this still indicates many more people are going into the backcountry.

Assuming a conservative estimate of use increasing 8 times and combining it with our flat fatality trend means our fatality rate (avalanche fatalities per backcountry user day) has dropped dramatically. In fact, this suggests that our fatality rate has dropped by at least a factor of 8 (and probably more) over the past 22 years.  If our fatality rate had stayed steady while the use increased we might well expect over 200 U.S. avalanche fatalities per winter!

Our community will continue to do all we can to push the number of fatalities toward zero.  However, we also need to take a step back and recognize that this flat line for U.S. avalanche fatalities is big deal.  It’s a win for avalanche educators at all levels, from those providing professional courses to those giving Know Before You Go awareness presentations.  It’s a win for backcountry guiding and ski area operations that work to protect and educate their clients.  It’s a win for equipment manufacturers who have developed an array of great equipment, including much improved avalanche beacons, Avalungs, lightweight helmets, and airbag packs.  And, it’s a huge win for our regional avalanche center network that provides the public both with avalanche education and with current, solid avalanche information for the areas where folks are recreating.  Ultimately, this flat fatality trend during a period of explosive backcountry growth shows that what we are doing works, and that is something that should make all of us proud.

Karl Birkeland

Acknowledgements: The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provided the data for this short post.  Our entire community owes a huge debt of gratitude to the CAIC, the CAIC personnel that compile the data, and the other folks who report and document avalanche accidents so that the rest of us can benefit from the lessons learned.  Thanks also to Simon Trautman, Doug Chabot, and Spencer Logan for their constructive reviews and feedback. 

Posted on June 27, 2016 .

National Avalanche Center releases new danger scale video

We are pleased to announce the release of a new educational video on the North American Avalanche Danger Scale.  This video aims to help the public better understand the way the avalanche danger scale is used, and how the scale  can help backcountry travelers minimize their avalanche risk.   Many thanks to Nomadic CreativeGrant Gunderson Photography, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for their help creating the video.  

Posted on April 29, 2016 .

"The Rebirth of an Avalanche Center"

Hard work and persistence are paying off at the Flathead Avalanche Center (FAC). A strong crew and impressive community support are resulting in daily avalanche advisories for the Flathead National Forest and portions of Glacier National Park. We want to give a shout out to all those who have worked so hard to promote and provide avalanche information on the Flathead over the years. Click here for the story as told by Powder Magazine:

http://www.powder.com/stories/the-safe-zone/the-rebirth-of-an-avalanche-center/#YpyfI44GxTMOxiXF.97

Posted on January 14, 2016 .

Updated "Know Before You Go" Video Released!

The Utah Avalanche Center has released a major update to the "Know Before You Go" video and youth avalanche education program.  This project was done in cooperation with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Avalanche Canada, the National Avalanche Center, and many others.  We are proud to have been a part of the great work led by the UAC team!

Watch the video on the new KBYG website here.  The website also has contact information so you can have the  KBYG program presented by an avalanche professional in your area.  Help us spread the word and educate youth - and everyone else, too - about avalanches!

 

 

Posted on November 4, 2015 .

Bruce Tremper, Utah Avalanche Center Director, retiring from the Forest Service

Bruce enjoying a day in the Wasatch backcountry, January 2015.

The Utah Avalanche Center has announced that Bruce Tremper is retiring from the Forest Service at the end of August.  Though he may tell you that he spent a bit too much time inside, he also typically found some time to enjoy the legendary Wasatch snow (see above).

 Bruce has been the Director of the Utah Avalanche Center for the past 29 years, and his influence has been felt throughout the avalanche industry both in the US and internationally.  His avalanche career began in Montana, where he earned his MS degree at Montana State University working with Dr. John Montagne.  He quickly took his work into the practical realm, doing avalanche control work at both Bridger Bowl and Big Sky.  He also worked as an avalanche forecaster at the Alaska Avalanche Center with Doug Fesler, Jill Fredston, and Jim Woodmency.  Bruce became the UAC Director in 1986, and continually strived to improve the products produced by the center for the public as our industry evolved from providing phone recorded avalanche advisories to a wide array of internet-based products.  He and the UAC were innovators throughout this process, introducing icons and avalanche problems to their advisories. 

Besides running the UAC, Bruce has always had a lot of other things on his plate.  He served as the editor for The Avalanche Review for six years and has published numerous papers, produced a number of avalanche safety videos, and wrote two great books on avalanches.  He was in charge of backcountry avalanche safety during Salt Lake’s 2002 Olympics, and has presented our agency in the most positive light with hundreds of media interviews.  He has taught at the National Avalanche School for decades, and he was a member of the working group that developed the conceptual model of avalanche danger and associated avalanche danger scale in 2010.

Luckily for all of us, Bruce plans to continue teaching, writing, and working on avalanche safety projects, so we are hoping he won’t be too much of a stranger.  However, I suspect the folks in the Wasatch and elsewhere will see Bruce and his wife Susi out skiing in the backcountry even more than before.  Just so you know, you are going to have to stay in good shape if you want to try to keep up with them.  Please join me in congratulating Bruce on his retirement from our agency, and wishing him the best in his future work and play!

With Bruce's impending  retirement, the UAC also announced that Mark Staples has been hired as the new Director. Mark’s background includes ski patrolling and snow safety work at Big Sky Ski Area, a MS degree in Engineering at Montana State University doing snow avalanche research, several special projects for the National Avalanche Center, and eight seasons of backcountry avalanche forecasting at the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. Mark is looking forward to joining the top-notch UAC team.

 

Incoming Utah Avalanche Center Director Mark Staples taking notes in the Hyalite Range south of Bozeman, Montana.

Posted on August 20, 2015 .

Mount Washington avalanche dog passes away

Cutler with Mount Washington Avalanche Center Director Chris Joosen

Cutler with Mount Washington Avalanche Center Director Chris Joosen

Cutler, an avalanche dog who worked with the  Mount Washington Avalanche Center in New Hampshire, recently passed away.  With 11 years of service, Cutler spent nearly 80% of his life making Mount Washington a safer place for visitors to the White Mountain National Forest.  In addition to his rescue work, Cutler excelled at public relations, allowing the Mount Washington Snow Rangers to reach and educate many more people about avalanche safety.

Mount Washington Avalanche Center Director Chris Joosen has posted a great blog and photo album about Cutler and his work.

Cutler and Chris Joosen going to work in Tukerman's Ravine on Mount Washington

Cutler and Chris Joosen going to work in Tukerman's Ravine on Mount Washington

Posted on May 11, 2015 .

U.S. avalanche fatalities the lowest in over 20 years

It's April 30th so the avalanche season isn't completely over yet.  However, the numbers for 2014/2015 are encouraging.  While any fatality is too many, this season's nine fatalities are the fewest since 1991.  A large reason behind the drop is undoubtedly the poor snow year along the west coast and the warm temperatures further inland, which helped keep the avalanche danger low for much of the year.  Still, the strong efforts of the Forest Service avalanche centers and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to provide avalanche education and information surely helped more people stay safe in the backcountry.  Longer range trends are also encouraging.  While backcountry use has skyrocketed in the past 15 years, our 5-year moving average for avalanche fatalities has stayed fairly stable, running between about 25 and 30 per year.

Thanks to the Spencer Logan and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for maintaining the US avalanche accident database and for providing this graphic! 

Posted on April 30, 2015 .

"Sidecountry": RATED R

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Many ski areas in the US are located on, or adjacent to, easily accessed public lands. While an incredible recreational resource, these backcountry areas are uncontrolled and unpatrolled. In other words, ski patrols do not conduct avalanche control, and in the event of an accident, rescue is the responsibility of the rider. As Doug points out in the following article: "after a parent waves goodbye in the ski area parking lot do they know what the kids are doing? Are they leaving the ski area for R-rated terrain?"

 Click here to read "Sidecountry": Rated R

Posted on February 5, 2015 .

Quick stability tests: Something everyone can do to minimize your risk of being caught in an avalanche

Doing a quick stability test takes little time and effort compared to the amount of information you can gather, as long as you can correctly interpret the results.  Doug Chabot (Director of the Gallatin NF Avalanche Center) and Mark Staples (Avalanche Specialist at the GNFAC) have written two excellent articles on the importance of digging for February issue of The Avalanche Review.  These articles are posted on the GNFAC website here and here. Check 'em out!

It's important to remember that you don't need to take a long time to do a stability tests.  If the layer you are testing is not very deep, you can do a stability test under three minutes, as demonstrated by Mark Staples in the video below.  Heck, Mark did it in about two minutes, including taking off his skis!


Posted on January 5, 2015 .