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January Avalanche Death Toll Soars - What’s the Industry to do?

There’s a palpable sense of loss within the mountain community as we face the one of the deadliest months in U.S. history. 

10 people have died in slides in the last 11 days, and 14 have died this winter. In comparison, the entire 2014-15 winter had 11 total avalanche deaths across the U.S., according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Despite media attention from  ABC News, many outdoor publications, and numerous local papers, people haven't seemed deterred from heading out of ski area boundaries without the proper knowledge, proper gear, or a willingness to back away from a potentially dangerous snowpack.

RELATED: 2 Skiers Dead After Triggering Avalanche in Jackson Hole Sidecountry 

On January 24, one person was killed and one was injured in an avalanche near Mount Baker Ski Resort, WA. Both experienced backcountry skiers, the pair had lapped a familiar run 5 times before deciding to take an alternate route back to the car, at which point they encountered an older avalanche path and one of them fell and was injured, putting them in harms way for a second and third avalanche occurring while they were on the slope. 

A local told me they ended up in a really bad spot without any clue of what they were skiing into. This is a sentiment that is shared among all cases of avalanche deaths– if we knew what would happen in a specific area we wouldn't go to begin with.  

Also on January 24, two people were killed in an avalanche in the Jackson Hole Resort sidecountry. A Jackson local said the group of three skiers were using rental skis and didn’t have any avalanche gear when they went out of bounds and unknowingly crossed into a dangerous area. Two were swept off a cliff by an avalanche, both died of trauma, while one survived by grabbing onto a tree before the cliff.

Snowmobile triggered avalanche in B.C. Two snowmobilers were caught, one killed. Photo: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

The case of the solo rider  who died in a slide on Pyramid Peak in Jackson Hole on January 19 was another event that begs the question: were these avalanche victims aware of the all of risks they took when they stepped into uncontrolled terrain? Could they have been better informed?

It's no secret that even the most experienced backcountry riders are killed in avalanches every year and nothing is 100% guaranteed. Yet the ski industry has been trying to minimize the risks taken with avalanche airbags, better transceivers, better forecasting apps, websites and signage, avy courses, and new online avy safety content. Shoot, at TGR, we even did our own  Safety Week last week. 

With all of this available, what is the ski industry to do when people don’t bother to read the signs, take the classes, or buy and learn how to use the equipment? 

Avalanches can kill anyone in the area– they're not a discriminating force. Therefore even those who are being safe in or around the backcountry are endangered by those who are not. It is imperative that we all make smart choices. 

What do you think? We want to hear from you.

We will be writing follow up to this article and we want to hear from the community. How do you think we can work together to minimize risk in the backcountry? 

Make the subject of your email: “Too Many Deaths in the Backcountry” and send it to:

Include your experience level in the backcountry and where you're from if you'd like. 

RELATED: Five French Foreign Legionnaires Killed in Alps Avalanche

Our thoughts go out to all of the loved ones, families, friends and community members who are dealing with loss. It is in the spirit of change for a safer backcountry that we ask for your advise on this heartbreaking matter. 

To all of our backcountry riders: please remember that carrying a beacon, shovel, probe, and the knowledge to safely navigate backcountry terrain is not only for your own safety—it could also help you save someone else's life. 

About The Author

stash member Maya Hunger

Journalist by training, dirtbag by bank account, environmentalist by passion, sea kayak guide & road bike guide in the summer, skier at heart.

A common theme is these people in almost every case are originally FROM non-mountain places, i.e. back east.  They have moved to or are visiting an environment they haven’t grown up in.  They haven’t accumulated the mountain knowledge one hopefully gets from growing up in said environment.

    Easy thing to say but far from the truth.  This time last year it was all the hype about the top guys that were killed.  Mountains don’t care where you are from.  From what I heard in the Darren Rahlves interview JT decided to take a line to the skiers left of the guided line on a wind loaded northern facing slope after a bunch of good stuff on southern exposures and look where he found himself.  You should read “deep survival” if you want to get into the psyche of why people make certain decisions in the backcountry.  Oftentimes the ones with no clue are way more likely to survive.  Fwiw I agree way more with Lea’s comment below.

On instagram no one ever has a bad day. The raddest lines in the sickest snow are the most celebrated. Big objectives are only worth skiing in epic mid winter conditions. Advertising (ski resorts, car companies, energy drinks, what have you) tells me that powder is the only option, happiness the only choice and only true adventure lets me #liveauthentic. Having fun is imperative. The freedom implied by an untouched slope sells, like sex. RedBull shows me what a hero is and a GoPro makes me one. Why wouldn’t I want to be a hero?

    Well said Lea.  #playitsafe is most definitely not the top hashtag

Historically most deaths have been due to people without avi training venturing outside of the resort boundary.  I think first time skiers at utah/co resorts should have to watch a 5 min orientation video that explains the avi dangers of ignoring boundary markers. I think many northeast skiers arent aware of the dangers that crossing ropes poses—both to themselves and to others. In vt the ropes seem more like guidelines rather than rules.