Studying avalanche trends is tricky. Detailed statistics tend to focus only on avalanches involving fatalities. No one knows how many skiers and snowmobilers head into the snowy backcountry every season, so it’s impossible to know the rates of accidents. Avalanche researchers rely on voluntarily provided information, and the data sets are small.

But that doesn’t stop avalanche scientists from their endless quest to identify trends that could help backcountry travelers more safely recognize risks as they navigate avalanche terrain. 

Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters Ethan Greene and Spencer Logan this week released a report looking at the levels of avalanche educationand backcountry experience of 126 people involved in 88 avalanches last year. They also studied the changes in accidents after the pandemic shut down resorts in mid-March and backcountry use exploded, which is widely expected to happen again this winter as resorts grapple with limited crowds.

The report expands on the official reports compiled by CAIC last season that involved injuries, death and damage. Last season the CAIC officially recorded 26 skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and hikers involved in avalanches. That count includes three snowboarders caught in an inbounds slide at Steamboat ski area in December and two very experienced snowboarders who triggered an avalanche that injured no one but destroyed avalanche mitigation devices above Eisenhower Tunnel, prompting a prosecutor to file first-ever criminal charges

All together, seven people were buried in those avalanches and six were killed.

Following the shutdown of ski areas on March 14, the proportion of incidents involving very experienced backcountry travelers — which Greene and Logan defined as “advanced” — climbed compared to the number of incidents involving beginners and intermediates, said Greene, the center’s longtime director.

“These are small numbers, but this would suggest that there were more people with advanced experience and avalanche education getting involved in accidents after the shutdown and any increase in accidents was not due to more beginners getting into trouble,” he said.

The avalanche center, a program within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, has 20 researchers and investigators based around the state. Those researchers talk to everyone involved in a fatal accident and in recent years began interviewing skiers and snowmobilers who were caught, carried or buried in slides. 

An image of the ridgeline and east-facing terrain on Mount Emmons where Crested Butte ski guide Dan Escalante died in an avalanche. The wet-slab avalanche broke on the densely treed slope in the bottom of the image. The blue circle indicates the approximate location where Escalante was caught, and the star where he came to rest. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.)

In addition to determining avalanche education through direct interviews, Greene and Logan developed a system based on several research models to rank avalanche education experience using indirect evidence, like reports from observers’ interviews and second-hand descriptions.

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