The unseen backcountry trap

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The unseen backcountry trap

Usually, it’s up to you: The human factor can prove fatal
The thrill of blasting through untracked powder is just one of the traps that can get someone into trouble in the backcountry.
To ski or not to ski? Just because you’ve been down a slope safely before doesn’t automatically make it safe. One study showed that in 69 percent of fatal avalanches, the victim was very familiar with the slope.
It looks inviting, and there are tracks on it much of the time. But the open slope to the west of Coal Bank Pass claimed a backcountry tourer’s life in 1994. “We know people are going out in avalanche terrain right away. We just try to show them what the risks are,” says Andy Gleason, a former Silverton avalanche forecaster who has taught snow science for 25 years.

The unseen backcountry trap

The thrill of blasting through untracked powder is just one of the traps that can get someone into trouble in the backcountry.
To ski or not to ski? Just because you’ve been down a slope safely before doesn’t automatically make it safe. One study showed that in 69 percent of fatal avalanches, the victim was very familiar with the slope.
It looks inviting, and there are tracks on it much of the time. But the open slope to the west of Coal Bank Pass claimed a backcountry tourer’s life in 1994. “We know people are going out in avalanche terrain right away. We just try to show them what the risks are,” says Andy Gleason, a former Silverton avalanche forecaster who has taught snow science for 25 years.
Risk-taking facts and stats

Some interesting avalanche tidbits from statistics supplied by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, except where noted:
Colorado, because of its abundance of backcountry enthusiasts, as well as a snowpack made dangerous because of its dry climate and typical weak layers, has by far the most avalanche deaths of any state. From 1950 to the present the toll is 267. Alaska is next with just 139, followed by Washington (116) and Utah (113).
A large growth of backcountry use hasn’t equated to more deaths. Since the mid-1990s the number of annual avalanche fatalities in the United States has remained about the same, around 28 per year.
Snowmobile avalanche deaths have skyrocketed. While there were 236 in the U.S. since 1950, 101 of those came in the last 10 years.
Colorado avalanche guru Dale Atkins’ 1999 study found that in a 45-year period, the average age of avalanche victims was 27.6, and 87.3 percent of the victims were men.
Sixty-five percent of Colorado’s deaths occur in January, February or March.
Sixty-nine percent of fatal accidents occur on slopes very familiar to the victim, according to a 2002 paper by researcher Ian McCammon.
JOHN PEEL

Backcountry sources

Myriad sources are available online for those wishing up-to-date conditions or to study more about avalanche danger. Among them:
Colorado Avalanche Information Center: http://avalanche.state.co.us.
The center this season discontinued its phone hotline forecasts but has everything online, with maps and other explanatory information about conditions. Also, statistics and reports on accidents are available.
South San Juan backcountry forecast: http://avalanche.state.co.us/forecasts/backcountry-avalanche/south-san-juan.
Backcountry Starts Here (http://backcountrystartshere.com) is targeted to the 18-26 age group and talks about gear, training, forecasts and the big picture.
Business of the Backcountry 2.0 (http://bit.ly/bizofthebackcountry), sponsored by Durango-based Verde Brand Communications, was developed for retailers and sales reps, but is open and free to anyone interested. It features interviews and seminars with experts in the backcountry.
Ian McCammon’s “Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents”: http://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/objects/issw-2002-244-251.pdf.
A several-part series on decision-making in the backcountry by Powder magazine, sponsored by Black Diamond: www.powder.com/stories/the-safe-zone/introducing-human-factor.

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