Avalanche

Did you know Colorado accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths in the U.S. since 1950?

The ability to participate in a large variety of winter sports is one of the best perks of living in Colorado. With winter sports, however, come risks, especially in the backcountry!

Approximately 2,300 avalanches are reported to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) every season, and as many as ten times more go unreported. Avalanches occur in the high mountains of Colorado as the result of snow accumulating on steep slopes. If the snow pack becomes unstable, it can suddenly release and rapidly descends downslope. Avalanches can exert forces great enough to destroy structures and uproot or snap off large trees.

What causes an avalanche? The addition of weight to the snowpack can trigger an avalanche. The weight can come from snow fall, drifting snow, or a person snowmobiling, snowboarding, skiing, or hiking. More than 75% of the avalanche fatalities in Colorado are caused by people recreating in the backcountry.

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, explore the information below to learn more about how to stay safe in the backcountry!

VIDEO: Avalanche Hazards in Colorado from the Colorado Geological Survey

Cover, banner, and within text photos courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Before

  • Check the avalanche conditions at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before venturing into the backcountry.
  • Be alert to the terrain – avalanches start on 30 degree slopes, but can run onto lower angled terrain.
  • Recent avalanche activity in the same area is an indicator of snow instability and a sign that more avalanches may occur.
  • Carry an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe.  Backpacks with airbags or breathing devices can help, too.
  • Wear a helmet to protect against head injuries.

During

  • Try to ride off the avalanche slab by maintaining momentum and angling to the edge of the slide.
  • “Swim” against the snow to get toward the rear of the avalanche.
  • Dig into the surface to slow yourself down and let as much debris as possible go past.
  • Grab a tree or other stable object.
  • If you lose your skis or snow board, roll onto your back with your feet pointed downhill.
  • As the avalanche slows, try to thrust your hand or some part of your body above the surface and then stick a hand in front of your face to make an air space around your mouth.

After

  • Switch your avalanche beacon to receive mode to search for other victims.
  • Notify authorities as soon as possible if a member of your group is missing.
  • If all members of your group are safe, leave the area as quickly and safely as possible.

More Information:

References, Resources and More Information:

  • Colorado Avalanche Information Center
  • Avalanche.org
  • The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education

It Happened Here

A group of six backcountry enthusiasts taking part in the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering, an event organized to promote backcountry snowboarding and avalanche safety, met at the Loveland Ski Area on April 20, 2013. The group went towards Loveland Pass intending to do a short tour. They decided to spread out with approximately 50 feet between people as they headed for a small stand of trees. The first two members in the group had reached the small stand of trees, with the other four members close behind when they felt a large collapse. It took several seconds for the crack to spread uphill and release the deep slab. Tragically, five of the six were killed in the avalanche, making it Colorado’s deadliest avalanche in 50 years.

Fast Facts:

  • Avalanches from the roof of a building can damage vehicles or bury and kill a person.
  • Avalanches have killed 159 people in Colorado between 1950 and 2013.
  • Avalanches are more likely to occur after a heavy snowfall as this increases snow instability.
  • Avalanches can reach speeds of up to 200 mph.
  • Avalanches are most common between November and April.
  • 90% of avalanche victims die in slides triggered by themselves or a member of their group.
  • On average, avalanches kill 6 people per winter in Colorado and 25 in the U.S.
  • Since 1950 avalanches have taken the lives of more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard.