Outdoors

Six Avalanche Deaths in Two Months: How They Happened

The Temptation area above Bear Creek, the site of a fatal avalanche on February 19.
The Temptation area above Bear Creek, the site of a fatal avalanche on February 19. avalanche.state.co.us
Colorado is in the midst of a tragic avalanche season, with six casualties from five slides in a span of less than two months this year. Given that March and April are two of the state's snowiest months, the danger has hardly passed — more avalanches caused traffic nightmares between Copper Mountain and Leadville, among other places, yesterday — and is described as historic.

In a March 7 conference call, state officials said that they've counted more than 2,000 avalanches this season, the vast majority of them non-fatal. But several have been very high-profile, including avalanches that have roared across heavily traveled stretches of Interstate 70. State officials rate current avalanche risk as extreme and suggest it could stay that way for months.

There are no shortage of statistics demonstrating how that translates to issues for those who venture into the backcountry. In January alone, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center documented 42 avalanches that were "close calls," involving 57 people in the state. The amount of people caught in avalanches that month was almost three times higher than during the same month in recent years.

While the six deaths is only half the total reached in 1993, the most lethal year for avalanches in Colorado between 1951 and 2016, the sum has already matched or exceeded figures from more than forty of those years. See the graphic below:



As for why this season has been so bad, Colorado Avalanche Information Center deputy director Brian Lazar cited multiple factors for a story we wrote in February, including "the way the winter's unfolded. We had early-season snow — snowfall in October and November that didn't melt away. It sat there long enough under some early-season dry conditions to turn into a weak layer of snow, which made for a poor foundation for the snowpack."

Additionally, he continued, "across much of the state, it's been a really snowy winter. That built thick layers of snow on top of this weak foundation. And when you're loading weak layers at the bottom of the snowpack with heavy snow on top, that's conducive for creating avalanches. When you build any kind of structure, you don't want to have a weak foundation, and with snowpack, it's really no different."

While this scenario is more heightened this season, it's hardly unprecedented. In Lazar's view, "Colorado has seen more fatalities than other states due to both the nature of our snowpack, which tends to produce widespread weak layers, and the fact that we have large swaths of snow-covered mountains in close proximity to urban centers."

The lure of these magnificent features has led to an increase in those visiting the high country, Lazar pointed out. The greater rate of visitation has plenty to do with the rising number of dangerous slides.


Here's more about each of the fatal incidents, with excerpts from Colorado Avalanche Information Center narratives and links to the complete reports.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts