Photo Courtesy of The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

A backcountry skier made a lucky escape after getting caught and partially buried in a “large hard slab avalanche,” on Berthoud Pass on March 17, 2021, in Colorado.

It's that time of year when Ethan Greene gets excited and nervous — excited for the ski season, nervous for what that brings.

The director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is already tracking reports of backcountry travelers near slides too close for comfort. For this early in the season, "probably a little bit more" than usual, he said. "But not a huge amount more."

Relatively dry weather in October and November was the precursor to the deadly winter of 2020-21 that won't soon be forgotten. A poor foundation of snow was laid for slides that would be all too easily triggered. Twelve skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers perished on the season — the most claimed by Colorado avalanches in nearly 30 years.

"We're not in the same place we were last year, but we also have some similarities right now," Greene said. "We are worried about what the future brings."

He and organizations tasked with forecasts and warnings have used the offseason to take stock of the season that was. It came with unprecedented education efforts — tens of thousands of dollars spent on TV ads and billboards, from the coffers of the state Department of Natural Resources and nonprofit Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

"I think there are some successes in terms of getting the message out so things weren't worse than what they were," Greene said. "But with 12 people dead, there's certainly nothing to be too happy about."

Along with Mother Nature's trends, CAIC has increasingly studied human behaviors the last couple of years. Upon ski resorts closing due to the pandemic in March of 2020, observers noted touring gear being bought up and parking lots along mountain passes filling fast. COVID-19 is credited with launching a new wave of backcountry enthusiasts.

"Certainly increased use means we're likely to see more (avalanche) involvements," Greene said. But a correlation with injury and death is "not quite that straightforward," he said. "Because it depends on the character of the avalanche cycle."

The character last season proved savage. With thin, early-season layers coating the mountains before periodic dumps, Greene said CAIC sounded the alarm with "a social media push" and public service announcements.

"It was trying to get in front of people (to say) this was not a normal year," Greene said.

On Dec. 18, Colorado marked its first avalanche death of '20-'21: a 69-year-old man described as "a longtime ski patroller and prolific backcountry skier" in The Gunnison Times. Two more men in their 50s died the next day on a mountain near Silverton. A slab near Berthoud Pass took another skier the day after Christmas.

In February, seven explorers died in five avalanches. The 12th death of the season was recorded toward the end of March, the youngest of all at 37. Like the first from December and the others who followed, he was remembered as experienced in the backcountry.

The topic of education among newcomers and the well-traveled was discussed last month at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop. A CAIC analysis of the '19-'20 season determined "beginners" were involved with only 15% of incidents.

"One thing to consider is that there is a difference between being experienced in your sport and being experienced with avalanches," Greene said. "We tend to see more avalanche accidents with people that are good at their sport, but have less experience with avalanches."

It's experience no one wants when he or she checks avalanche forecasts — as Greene hopes people are doing now, as they're venturing to early snowpack.

"There's parts of the state that have more (snow) than others, and in those places, we've definitely seen people get excited and get out," Greene said. "But where there's snow, there's avalanche danger."

Contact the writer: seth.boster@gazette.com

Load comments