Avalanches, yes more avalanches
Avalanches – tired of that word yet? Yes, folks, it has been a big year for these puppies, with disastrous consequences. Excuse the phrase, but it has been a perfect storm. Covid fears have pushed people away from lift lines, ski lodging and $15 burgers. And the North American snow gods have not cooperated, providing generally an unstable snowpack dominated by a weak ground layer.
The mainstream press continues to feature the topic, with the Washington Post running an article this week about avalanche dogs. See Avalanche Rescue Goes to the Dogs. (On the off chance you missed it, check out our post on training our beast (Rumble) in avalanche rescue at Rumble Goes to Avi School.) Unfortunately, the dirty little secret about avi dogs (which even the Post article doesn’t highlight) is that the dogs are used primarily to locate people who have perished in an avalanche. Nonetheless, the dogs have amazing talents and combine two of our favorite things – skiing and dogs.
One of the hot topics regarding snow safety and avalanches is whether to shut down the backcountry, particularly when conditions are dangerous. Much of the terrain used by backcountry skiers is accessed via the existing ski areas (this terrain is often called “side country”) so it wouldn’t be that difficult to severely limit access to avalanche prone areas by shutting the gates from ski areas to the side country. The side country debate has raged ever since Jackson Hole opened up many gates years ago and has pretty much allowed open access ever since. Other major resorts followed – Park City and Snowbird in Utah for example.
This year in particular has heightened the debate over these access gates, and a certain gate at Park City has been the focal point for much of this discussion since two more skiers died in January after using this gate. See Ninety Nine 90 Park City Gate – To Heaven or Hell? This article highlights the difficult issues. The gate is on the private property owned by the ski area, so they technically have complete control over whether to allow access to the side country via the gate. But things aren’t that simple. Skier groups push hard to have the gates open, and, interestingly, the National Forest Service has weighed in on the debate since they want skiers to be able to access the federal land that borders Park City.
And finally, there are increasing concerns that climate change is exacerbating the avalanche conditions. One of the common misconceptions regarding snow safety is that a deep snowpack automatically causes dangerous conditions. Not so. Consistent snowfall throughout a winter with deep snow totals can provide a very stable snowpack. Put perhaps too simply, dangerous weak or slick layers don’t have a chance to develop. Unfortunately, climate change may be responsible for the shallower, more complicated snowpack we have seen throughout North America in recent years. Volatile temperature changes, more intense windy storms followed by extended dry periods and increased immature snow events have led to scary snowpacks in recent years. For an interesting although somewhat depressing take on all this see Are Climate Change and Avalanches Linked?