DENVER, COLORADO – The deaths of two Colorado men caught in avalanches and a third in Montana over the frigid Presidents Day weekend shows how backcountry skiers and others in The wilderness of the Rockies is at risk of triggering weak layers of snow that have created the most dangerous conditions in a decade, forecasters say.
At least 25 people have been killed in avalanches in the United States this year more than the 23 who died last winter. Typically, 27 people die each year in avalanches in the United States.
Avalanche forecasters say they have rarely seen the danger as high as it is today and that it will increase as more snow moves through the Rockies, adding weight and stress to a layer light, granular snow likely to break and trigger particularly wide slides. on steep slopes.
The main culprit is this layer of snow on the ground which fell in October. A dry November weakened it, ranging in thickness from several inches (centimeters) to several feet (meters), and despite more snow falling, it retained the consistency of granular sugar, said Dave Zinn, a weather forecaster. avalanches for the avalanche of the Gallatin National Forest. Central in southwestern Montana.
This layer is made up of large, sweet crystals that do not bond well. It is impossible to snowball it. And when it gets heavier, it becomes brittle and shatters, causing the heaviest layers to fall on top, Zinn said.
It is the weakest link in the chain. When you accumulate more snow, there’s always a spot that’s going to break, said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
This aerial photo provided by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center shows a ground crew approaching the area of an avalanche in the Gallatin National Forest, Mt., February 14, 2021.
Cross-country skier Craig Kitto, 45, of Bozeman, Mont., Was fatally injured on Sunday when the slope of the forest he and a companion were climbing cracked without warning, collapsed and swept him away in a tree. The other person was not injured.
Similar conditions may have resulted in the death of David Heide, 57, a backcountry skier whose body was found Sunday in a field of avalanche debris in central Colorados County Clear Creek. In neighboring Grand County, an avalanche carried a snowmobile across a frozen lake on Sunday, and its body was found buried in the snow. A coroner is investigating.
On February 6, Utah experienced the deadliest avalanche in about 30 years when four backcountry skiers in their 20s died. Four more dug out of the 1,000-foot (300-meter) slide east of Salt Lake City.
Several factors come into play in the eruption of deaths: the snowpack, which can be affected by the displacement of windstorms and the piling of snow on weak layers; weather conditions that can change rapidly in the high altitudes of the Rockies; and the availability of public land in the western United States, where people often benefit from an easily accessible national forest.
In contrast, ski areas have long ensured that their slopes are groomed, that potential avalanches are triggered in their areas, and that nearby hinterland areas are closed before the first customers reach the lifts. mechanical. It is not uncommon for skiers in the Colorados Loveland ski area to occasionally hear a howitzer targeting endangered areas on windblown peaks approaching 3,950 meters along the Continental Divide.
Ski patrols do a lot of work to mitigate risk, Zinn said. But in the hinterland, we have to be our own avalanche experts.
Avalanche Centers in Colorado, Montana and Utah, as well as the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center, provide daily advisories on conditions and risk levels, as well as safety and training resources.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a special advisory on Monday, warning that large natural and man-made avalanches are likely.
Are people getting the message?
It’s hard to answer, Greene admitted Monday. Yesterday was tragic, a horrible thing. We do not know how many received the messages and pursued some other kind of recreation. We don’t know how many did it safely.
Forecasters emphasize standard precautions before heading to the backcountry:
* Have rescue equipment: a beacon, a probe to check the snow conditions, a shovel. Know how to use them.
* Check the daily forecast.
* Keep an eye out for recent avalanche activity.
* Take a guided tour.
* Don’t go it alone if possible. Make sure that only one person in your group is on exposed terrain at any given time.
The bottom line is that partner rescue is the only way to get positive results in the backcountry, Zinn said.
The cold temperatures recorded over much of the Rockies reduce your margin for error, Zinn added. If you have an accident, minor injuries become serious and severe ones become fatal with the aggravating factor of hypothermia.
Greene said that while there is adventure in the wildest parts of public land, having the freedom to go anywhere you want comes with the responsibility of taking care of yourself.
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