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New Colorado avalanche study reveals troubling trend heading into busy backcountry season

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center found an increase in accidents involving experienced skiers during periods of elevated danger after the pandemic shutdown in March

Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun

Studying avalanche trends is tricky. Detailed statistics tend to focus only on avalanches involving fatalities. No one knows how many skiers and snowmobilers head into the snowy backcountry every season, so it’s impossible to know the rates of accidents. Avalanche researchers rely on voluntarily provided information, and the data sets are small.

But that doesn’t stop avalanche scientists from their endless quest to identify trends that could help backcountry travelers more safely recognize risks as they navigate avalanche terrain. 

Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters Ethan Greene and Spencer Logan this week released a report looking at the levels of avalanche education and backcountry experience of 126 people involved in 88 avalanches last year. They also studied the changes in accidents after the pandemic shut down resorts in mid-March and backcountry use exploded, which is widely expected to happen again this winter as resorts grapple with limited crowds.

The report expands on the official reports compiled by CAIC last season that involved injuries, death and damage. Last season the CAIC officially recorded 26 skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and hikers involved in avalanches. That count includes three snowboarders caught in an inbounds slide at Steamboat ski area in December and two very experienced snowboarders who triggered an avalanche that injured no one but destroyed avalanche mitigation devices above Eisenhower Tunnel, prompting a prosecutor to file first-ever criminal charges

All together, seven people were buried in those avalanches and six were killed.

Following the shutdown of ski areas on March 14, the proportion of incidents involving very experienced backcountry travelers — which Greene and Logan defined as “advanced” — climbed compared to the number of incidents involving beginners and intermediates, said Greene, the center’s longtime director.

Read more at ColoradoSun.com.

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