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The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) isn’t totally sure how many people are venturing into the Colorado backcountry to ski. Anecdotally, ever since the novel coronavirus shut down ski areas last spring, there have been reports of more cars parked at popular backcountry locales, like Berthoud and Loveland Passes. But it’s difficult to quantify whether there are more people in dangerous avalanche territory—let alone how much busier those zones have been.
In a study released in November, though, the CAIC team took a stab at analyzing the change in how people were skiing before and after COVID-19 swept into Colorado last spring. Most notably, CAIC looked at Colorado’s avalanche accidents and attempted to grade the experience levels of those involved.
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The results prior to the March shutdown were no surprise: The bulk of avalanche accidents involved more experienced skiers and riders, most of whom had some formal avalanche training. “It’s really a feature of exposure,” says CAIC director Ethan Greene. “The reason people with more experience and education are more likely to experience an avalanche is [because] they are more likely to go where avalanches happen.” Greene likened it to driving a car: If you don’t have your driver’s license, you’re a lot less likely to be the one driving during a car accident. Not because you’re a better driver, but because you’re not putting yourself behind the wheel.
In the latter half of last season, after the virus hit and resorts closed, Greene saw that trend continue—and possibly even accelerate. Though they don’t necessarily know how many more people were in the backcountry, the CAIC noticed that experienced skiers and riders were even more likely to be involved with avalanches than earlier in the winter. Less-experienced backcountry users, on the other hand, saw no relative change.
Greene emphasizes that while the study is helpful, it isn’t perfect. Aside from not knowing how many people were in the backcountry, he said that the research was based on a small sample size. Last spring also featured a more stable snowpack in the mountain ranges in the northern part of the state, which tend to see a higher proportion of less experienced skiers and snowboarders, while the southern mountain ranges—generally the province of a more seasoned crowd—had less stable snow. He also said that there’s a slight reporting bias favoring more experienced users. But in the study, the CAIC hypothesized that the crowds at popular spots pushed more experienced users into terrain they didn’t know as well, opening them up to more risk.
As far as what that means for this year, Greene says we don’t entirely know yet. There have been four confirmed avalanche fatalities in Colorado this ski season. Another three skiers are feared dead after a massive avalanche near Silverton earlier this week (San Juan County search and rescue teams are still looking for them). For comparison, there have been between one and eight fatalities in each of the last four seasons. During all of 2019, more than 100 people reported they had been caught in avalanches in Colorado, and the most recent data for 2020 indicates around another 100 people found themselves involved in non-deadly slides.
The CAIC hasn’t been looking at each accident this season through the same extensive rubric that they used to grade those involved with accidents last spring, but Greene estimates that three of the first four fatalities this season involved what their scale would categorize as “advanced” users, while one would likely be a “beginner.” News reports indicate that the three skiers caught in the avalanche near Silverton this week were also highly skilled.
Whether or not that’s further proof of experienced users being more likely than normal to be involved in an avalanche, Greene isn’t ready to say. The most obvious explanation—and one that Greene says he and his team can actually look at now—has been the notable instability of the snowpack this year caused by early, inconsistent snow. “I think that’s the easiest thing for us to understand right now,” he says.
Greene also pointed to studies linking stress to poor decision-making. “It’s hard to look at the environment that we are all living in and say that that tenor doesn’t affect us,” says Greene of going on a year of existing with COVID-19. “How exactly that plays into avalanche accidents, I don’t know, but I do feel like it plays a role.”
If you do decide to go into the backcountry, the CAIC website has a map that shows the avalanche risk rating for each area of the state, though that is intended as a guide only. Also, be sure you have an avalanche beacon to transmit your location if you get buried in a slide, a collapsible shovel, and a probe, which can be used to poke deep into snow.