Environment

Most avalanche deaths happen on federal lands

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 1/31/19

An avalanche within the main ski area of Taos Ski Valley on Jan. 17, which ultimately killed two young men, shook the wider community. The incident was the first of …

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Environment

Most avalanche deaths happen on federal lands

Posted

An avalanche within the main ski area of Taos Ski Valley on Jan. 17, which ultimately killed two young men, shook the wider community. The incident was the first of its kind in TSV, but avalanches and deaths resulting from them aren't uncommon.

"If you have mountains and have snow, you'll have avalanches," said Simon Trautman, national avalanche specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.

Each year, about 25 to 30 people die in avalanches and the large majority of them, like the one in TSV, happen in national forests, according to the National Avalanche Center.

The Jan. 17 avalanche was only the fifth deadly avalanche to happen in New Mexico since 1950, according to national data collected by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Colorado, on the other hand, has seen 276 avalanche fatalities during that same period.

Part of what made the TSV incident so rare was that it happened within the boundaries of the ski area (inbound), instead of in the unpatrolled backcountry.

"The rate of deaths inside ski areas is pretty small," said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Inbound deaths total 45 across the U.S. over the last seven decades. Backcountry tourers and snowmobilers account for the vast majority of avalanche deaths.

Most ski areas have "daily sophisticated avalanche safety programs," Greene said. "They do a lot of work to try to safeguard their clients," he said.

Indeed, TSV officials said they had performed avalanche mitigation the day of the Jan. 17 incident. The Carson National Forest approved a new mitigation system in the ski valley in May 2018, but that system has not been installed.

Looking at all the data since 1950, there is a general increase in the number of avalanche-related deaths. This trend corresponds with the onset of the modern era of winter recreation, Green said.

Avalanche deaths peaked in 2008 and 2010, with 36 deaths each year.

However, the trend has mostly been either flat or in decline since then. That, paired with a rise in the number of people involved in winter sports, means a decrease in deaths per recreation enthusiast, Greene said.

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