43 more avalanche-related deaths.
That is the number needed to tie the 2002/2003 season as the deadliest avalanche season recorded since the The Colorado Avalanche Information Center began maintaining a national database in 1998.
This year, we’re off to a terrifying start and seeing as the final avalanche incident of the 2003 season came on May 25th, we’ve got a long way to go.
So far, 15 people have died this season with 11 of those death coming in the month of January alone. Prior to Monday, an astounding 10 deaths occurred in a 8 day period spanning Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Alaska. In fact, the avalanche fatalities this month make January of 2016 the second deadliest January ever as far as avalanche fatalities are concerned.
But how does that rank compared to the 2002/2003 season?
January of 2003 saw the single most avalanche fatalities ever for the month with a total of 13 fatalities. However, this month isn’t over and two more avalanche related deaths in the coming days would create a tie with the 2002/2003 January death toll.
Historically speaking, the majority of avalanche deaths happen during January, February, and March making this year a possible candidate for worst avalanche season in recorded history.
But what exactly would have to happen for the 2015/2016 season to become the worst ever? First, severe avalanche danger and complex snowpacks would have to persist through the next two months. In the Wasatch, the snowpack is dodgy to say the least and right now, there’s no light at the end of the gazex gun. The Utah Avalanche Center has expressed this sentiment in their most recent advisory which claims that “Faceted weak layers can be found around the compass – on all aspects – at the upper elevations.” Such weak layers are allowing sensitive storm slabs to form as well as creating persistent slab conditions that have already claimed the life of one skier in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Being one of the most trafficked backcountry areas in the country, the current snowpack in the Wasatch does not bode well for the safety of Utah backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
Also, Utah isn’t the only one with an avalanche problem…
From the Tetons to the San Juan and all the way to the Cascades, persistent slabs are dominating avalanche advisories across the majority of the western United States and Canada. Such persistent slabs make choosing appropriate terrain extremely difficult. Among other things, having an intimate knowledge of slope history is imperative to staying alive.
Bottomline, this year’s snowpack is hard to evaluate for even the most intelligent backcountry travelers. Major differences between aspects and slopes can provide deceiving data and many reports across the west indicate the need to complete a multitude of assessments on a variety of slopes in order to make intelligent route finding decisions. Even after those evaluations are made, lurking persistent slabs are becoming harder and harder to decipher as snow continues to pile up, healing some weak layers while exacerbating others.
But will such suspect snowpacks claim 17 more in February, 15 in March, and another 11 people in April and May?
That all depends. Whether or not backcountry travelers decide to roll the dice remains the biggest variable. Refered to by many as “The Human Factor” (or the center of the avalanche triangle), skiers, riders, and snowmobilers will determine whether or not the 2015/2016 winter season becomes the deadliest avalanche season of all time.