Learning Lessons From Avy Accidents:
Interview with the CAIC Director Dr. Ethan Greene
Thirty seven people died in avalanche accidents in the United States last winter. Another 12 died in Canada, and a sobering 130 died in Europe, making the Winter of 20/21 one of the most deadly in decades around the world.
What made the winter so tragic in the United States was an unusually dangerous mid-winter snowpack in the Intermountain West, including Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. In one six-day period in the first week of February, 10 people were killed in six avalanches in five states.
Colorado was hit especially hard. A dozen people died in avalanches in Colorado in 20/21, the most the state had recorded in nearly 30 years. Watching these tragedies stack up was crushing to the forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) who tried everything they could to keep people informed of the imminent dangers in the snowpack.
CAIC Executive Director Dr. Ethan Greene was one of the many CAIC forecasters shouting from every mountain top about the dangerous conditions in the Rockies last season. In the aftermath of the deadly winter, Greene was also notably troubled by what he found when analyzing the commonalities between the accident victims in both 19/20 and 20/21. In a new trend, the average age and experience level of avalanche accident victims are going up. Older and more experienced backcountry travelers are now getting caught more frequently in Colorado.
In response to this new trend, the CAIC is looking to find new ways to reach experienced backcountry travelers about potential avalanche dangers. We’re honored to support CAIC’s mission and we recently caught up with Greene to hear about his studies and ask his advice for how experienced backcountry explorers can learn from the mistakes made by too many last winter.
Why was last winter so deadly in the Rockies?
We had a very weak snowpack across most of Colorado going into February, and then February was a heavy precip month which put a lot of snow on top of the bad layers. That combination became really dangerous as a lot of people ventured into the backcountry trying to get a taste of the new snow.
What we saw was that people were going to terrain that they were familiar with, but the avy conditions were not what they were used to. We had once-a-decade conditions in terms of how reactive the snowpack was. So a lot of accidents happened in terrain that wasn’t usually that dangerous. The terrain was just dangerous with the given conditions.
So terrain people thought was safe ended up being deadly?
Yes, two of the people that were killed near Silverton were touring on terrain that most would call low angle. The slope was right around 30 degrees. But that slope was in a huge avalanche path that had a start zone that was well over 35 degrees. On a lot of days, touring on the low angle terrain in that avalanche path would be fine. But given the danger of the snowpack we had, and the potential for remote triggers, being on terrain that was connected to those steeper slopes was super dangerous.
What was the average experience level of those involved in the accidents?
A lot of the people we saw get into accidents last year were really active skiers and riders, but they didn’t have a lot of avalanche training or avalanche experience. These were people that loved to ski, but they had maybe only taken a one-day avalanche awareness course. These findings reinforced the results of a study we did on Colorado avalanche incidents from before and after the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Interesting and scary findings! Can you tell us more about that study?
Our study ranked people who were caught in avalanches based on experience, and looked at how the experience level of the accident victims changed before and after the pandemic started in March 2020. One of the narratives going around when the resorts shut down was that if we closed the ski areas it was going to push lots of novice users into the backcountry, and that they were going to get caught in lots of avalanches, and cause chaos on the rescue systems. But that’s not what we saw. It was really more experienced people that were getting caught more frequently after the shutdown.
Before the shutdown, the distribution of experience amongst people involved in avalanches was pretty evenly spread out between beginner, intermediate and advanced experience levels. After the shutdown, beginners didn’t change that much, intermediates went down, and advanced went up.
Why do you think more experienced backcountry travelers started to get caught more frequently after the pandemic started?
Just thinking back on that period, it was a tough time for all of us. There was a lot of uncertainty. and a lot of people wanted to get out and recreate because businesses were closed, restaurants were closed, and the ski areas were closed. So the more experienced skiers were naturally drawn to go skiing, but the avalanche conditions were really challenging to navigate, even for the experienced.
If super dangerous avalanche conditions were to line up again this year, what is your advice for experienced backcountry travelers who still want to go touring?
Start by asking yourself what your recreational goals are for the day. Matching your goals to the current avalanche conditions is the most important thing to focus on. More experienced backcountry travellers tend to have more well defined goals, like trying to ride a specific line. A tick list is a great thing to keep on your refrigerator, and you may have a season where you get to ride a bunch of the lines on your list, but it’s critical to recognize that there will be lines you may have to wait years to safely descend. The most knowledgeable and experienced backcountry travelers watch particular lines season after season, and wait for the perfect conditions before they make an attempt. Because perfect conditions don’t happen everyday, and if you want to avoid getting caught, you need to pick and choose where you go based on conditions.
What is your advice for aspiring backcountry explorers who want to safely gain touring experience?
The best advice is to start on low angle terrain and get your whole backcountry mojo sorted out before you travel into steeper terrain. You need to learn how to plan your tour, how to move through the mountains, and what sort of things to look for on tours that don’t have a lot of associated risk. And then, as you start getting more comfortable executing those plans, you can start taking on more committing and dramatic routes. I know this is a hard pill to swallow for many newcomers to the backcountry because most people don't get into riding in the backcountry because they want to ride low angle slopes. But low angle, inconsequential terrain is exactly where you need to start to understand how a snowpack lies on the terrain, and how it changes based on aspect, elevation and slope angle.
What advice do you have for the backcountry traveler who only has one day to tour that week and they really want to get out?
If you want to go out on a particular day, it’s important to remember that we can’t pick what the snowpack or the weather is going to be like on that day, but we can absolutely pick the terrain we’re going to go into. When we look at dry avalanches, over 90% of the people that get killed either trigger the slide themselves or someone in their group triggers the slide. The take home message from that is that by thinking about the conditions relative to the terrain, we have a lot of control over our potential of getting caught or killed in an avalanche. Most of the risk is in our own decisions, and by making careful decisions we can move relatively safely in the mountains any day of the winter.
What aspects of the avalanche forecast should experienced backcountry travelers pay special attention to?
If you’re reading the forecast everyday, or very frequently, you need to make sure to always read the forecast discussion. These are the details you need to understand what the problematic layers are and how the forecasters are coming up with the avalanche danger rating. If you're riding commiting terrain, you need to know exactly what the forecasters are looking at and the data that they are using to key in on the danger.
What should readers focus on in the forecast in situations like last season, where the avy danger was moderate or considerable, but danger was definitely lurking?
When the danger rating is moderate or considerable it’s really important to look beyond the danger rating and dig into the avalanche problems. This is where the forecasters will tell you the character of the avalanche danger and where you are most likely to encounter it. From there, the best approach is to simply avoid terrain on the dangerous aspects and elevations they are highlighting. Go to areas that are not highlighted for potential dangers. If Northeast aspects are sketchy, look for Southwest facing terrain. This is especially important if it’s a moderate day and the forecast still mentions the potential of large avalanches. You really need to know the aspects where avalanches are possible and how easily they may be to trigger. If you don’t know where the danger is hiding you could easily stumble into a dangerous area and not even know it.
Besides taking an avalanche awareness class, and bringing your avalanche rescue gear, what's the best way to avoid getting caught in a slide?
Even if you have no formal avalanche training, or you won’t be leading the tour, always check the forecast yourself before you go out to get a sense of the overall danger. Because that’s by far the best way to avoid getting caught in an avalanche. Read the forecast, identify the dangerous aspects, avoid those aspects, and choose your terrain wisely.
Ride For Tomorrow
Avalanche awareness and basic first-aid are critical skills for the backcountry rider.