For the past seven years we have kicked off the winter by asking backcountry riders of all abilities to refresh and improve their avalanche awareness skills. December is the perfect month for taking the time to focus on your avy and rescue skills as you’ll use these skills the rest of the season.
To fire things up this season, we have some good news to share!
Figure 1: U.S. avalanche fatalities from the 1994/95 winter through the 2015/16 winter. The slightly decreasing least squares trend line is not statistically significant (p = 0.7), indicating that there is no statistical evidence of a change in the number of avalanche fatalities during this time period.
Can you believe that over the past 22 years of booming backcountry use in the USA, the number of avalanche fatalities has not increased?! National Avalanche Center Director Karl Birkeland noted these surprising findings in his recent report.
"This flat line would be no big deal if backcountry use was also flat," says Karl in the report. "However, anyone who has been in the backcountry for the past 22 years knows full well that use has skyrocketed."
Conservatively, Karl estimates backcountry use has increased eight times over in the past 22 years. Comparing that to the fatality data, our fatality rate (avalanche fatalities per backcountry user day) has dropped dramatically, by at least a factor of eight and likely more. If the fatality rate had stayed steady we might expect over 200 U.S. avalanche fatalities per winter.
The one caveat to the above graph is that it also includes snowmobilers. Here is the U.S. avalanche fatalities for strictly backcountry skiers and riders:
Figure 3: The number of backcountry skier and snowboarder avalanche fatalities is also relatively flat, though there is some statistical evidence (p = 0.07) of a slight increase over the time period.
What this graph shows is that there is a very slight rising trend in backcountry skier and rider deaths. Compared to the increase in backcountry users it’s tiny but it is noted.
So then what’s the big deal with the flat line? It’s a sign that our work promoting avalanche awareness these past seven Decembers is paying off!
"Our community will continue to do all we can to push the number of fatalities toward zero. However, we also need to take a step back and recognize that this flat line for U.S. avalanche fatalities is big deal," says Karl. "It’s a win for avalanche educators at all levels, from those providing professional courses to those giving Know Before You Go awareness presentations. It’s a win for backcountry guiding and ski area operations that work to protect and educate their clients. It’s a win for equipment manufacturers who have developed an array of great equipment, including much improved avalanche beacons, Avalungs, lightweight helmets, and airbag packs. And, it’s a huge win for our regional avalanche center network that provides the public both with avalanche education and with current, solid avalanche information for the areas where folks are recreating. Ultimately, this flat fatality trend during a period of explosive backcountry growth shows that what we are doing works, and that is something that should make all of us proud."
We’re thrilled to celebrate this achievement with Karl and everyone else in our industry that helps spread the message of safe backcountry decision making. The satisfaction of knowing what we’re doing is actually working just stokes our fire to learn more and share more.
On that note, for more detailed information about all the USA avalanche fatalities check out this interactive graph by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The graph details fatalities by user group and by month among a ton of other criteria.
Huge thanks to Karl Birkeland of the National Avalanche Center, the Colorado Avalanche Info Center and Clark Corey for the data and insightful analysis.