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The 2020–‘21 avalanche season is already one of the deadliest in United States history. Since October 1, 34 people have been killed in slides across the country; 12 of those deaths occurred in Colorado.
“Watching this season unfold is like watching a freight train barreling down a mountain and the brakes aren’t working,” says Vicki Hormuth, executive director of the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). “That train left the station in December and we can’t seem to slow it down.”
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The uptick in fatalities is in part due to a surge in backcountry use as major resorts have implemented reservation systems during this pandemic-tinged season. In February, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center also said that unstable base layers of snowpack are causing more slides than usual, a problem that is likely to continue through this spring.
AIARE wants to do a better job of helping people avoid such situations during the final weeks of this ski season and beyond. To do so, the organization has partnered with Colorado brands Tincup Whiskey and Weston Backcountry to create a quiz skiers and riders can use to gauge avalanche expertise before venturing outside the bounds of a resort and getting themselves in dangerous situations.
The assessment is comprised of detailed, multiple choice and true/false questions, which cover everything from avalanche preparation routines to rescue protocol to types of snowpack. As an extra incentive, everyone who completes the avalanche safety quiz before April 15 can enter to win limited edition backcountry skis or a splitboard.
“We are hoping to continue to reach a broader audience, including those that are new to the backcountry or have been in the backcountry without formal education,” says Hormuth. “Our hope is that the survey will reinforce what you learn on an AIARE course, while for others it may shine a light on all of the things that you don’t know.”
Last year, about 12,000 students went through AIARE’s avalanche courses across the United States. This year, the organization anticipates the number will be closer to 15,000. There has been a huge demand for courses since the pandemic hit, and although there are more courses and more providers (31 of AIARE’s 114 providers are based in Colorado, and Colorado Mountain School is the nation’s largest provider of avalanche courses), many filled up quickly this season. Additionally, backcountry equipment began flying off the shelves last spring when the ski areas closed and has been in short supply since.
While knowledge from the quiz and classes is helpful, it is no match against a rushing wall (or train) of snow. Especially with the recent storms, avalanche danger will remain high in many areas across the state and experts implore anyone venturing into the backcountry to check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasts and proceed with caution.
“Know that if you go into the backcountry—any place outside of a ski resort that is in the mountains with snow—there is potential for avalanches. The decisions that you make have life or death consequences for you and others around you,” says Hormuth. “Typically, our snowpack starts to stabilize in the spring. However, our snowpack is particularly weak this season and our weak layers are not gone yet. Many of the dangers aren’t obvious, so it’s important to know about those dangers ahead of time.”