PHOENIX - Sheets of snow sliding down in an instant, avalanches are one of the most dangerous winter hazards. On average, they kill about 25 to 30 people a year in the United States.
The beginning of February 2021 was the deadliest week of U.S. avalanches on record. According to the National Avalanche Center, 15 people died the week of Feb. 1 due to avalanches. Four of those deaths occurred in Utah, making it the most deadly disaster in the state since 1992.
In all, there have been 24 avalanche-related fatalities in the U.S. so far for 2021, with all cases happening outside of Arizona.
Weather, visitors all factors in avalanches
One of the reasons for an active avalanche season is the dry periods in between winter storms which causes a separation in the snowpack. Derik Spice, President of the Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center, says another reason is the number of people visiting the backcountry slopes.
"The wilderness is always open. You don't have to ride a lift, you don't have to stand in the line, you can hike up from the bottom," said Spice. "We’re in a pandemic, so everyone wants to get outside and enjoy this fresh air."
That’s what’s called "the human factor." 93% of avalanche accidents are human triggered, started by either the victim or someone in the victim’s group.
"Most avalanche accidents occur with 24 hours of new snow, and if it's a bluebird, sunny day, you know that's when we're feeling good and want to get out there on the snowpack, and that's when we really want to reign that urge in sometimes and listen to the snow. We call that 'listen to the mountains,'" said Spice.
Snowbowl has a system in place to minimize risk
At Arizona Snowbowl, ski patrollers are responsible for all aspects of safety inside the ski area boundary. Where there is avalanche terrain, the ski patrol is responsible for managing it.
"What that usually means is that we'll have a group of snow science technicians who will study the snow inside the ski area boundary to determine whether or not there is an avalanche danger, and if there is a danger, what we do is go out and do hazard reduction," said Ski Patrol Manager Dominic Zanzucchi.
Zanzucchi is one of the many patrollers who use explosives to create smaller, controlled avalanches to make the slopes safer for winter recreation and ultimately minimizing deaths.
"When we go on these avalanche controlled routes, basically each patroller that goes has between 10 to 20 pounds of explosives in their backpack, and this is what we'll throw out onto the slopes to initiate these avalanches," said Zanzucchi. "These are controlled with a 90-second fuse so that gives us plenty of time to throw it and walk away."
So far this season, with the lack of significant snowpack and minimal base at the San Francisco Peaks, there haven't been any human-triggered slides yet. Spice, however, says people should still learn about avalanche safety before hitting the backcountry slopes.
"When we leave the ski area, we need to have knowledge of the snowpack, you need to have knowledge of the terrain, where am I going?" said Spice.
Avalanche awareness taught during classes
The Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center offers avalanche awareness classes and hands-on training. In one of the courses, students study the stability and structure of a snowpack to help them determine where it’s safe to ski. Then, it’s time to isolate a column of the snowpack to assess.
"In this snowpack, this is all fresh snow," said the trainer. "It's pretty soft. That's fist hardness, as we like to call it."
A difference in the layers was noticed.
"What we're interested in is hard snow on top of a weak layer ... They're not bonding well," said the trainer. All the ingredients are there for an avalanche.
There are also rescue drills in those lessons.
When heading outside of the ski area, people learn in training it's important to have three essential tools: a probe, a beacon, and a shovel. The three items are all necessities to conduct an avalanche rescue.
During a search for a beacon, people can, via a transmitter, pick up a signal which would indicate the location of the victim. In one drill, a duffle bag with a beacon inside represents a victim.
The goal is to conduct a successful rescue in well under 15 minutes. After that, chances of survival will quickly decrease.
Arizona has had one avalanche fatality on the San Francisco Peaks, in 1995.
Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center
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