Report on avalanche deaths in the past 10 years profiles victims, accidents and highlights some ‘reckless’ would-be rescue efforts; more pictures from the Beacon Bowl at the end of this post
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Most of the people who died in snow slides the past 10 years were wearing beacons and many of them had at least some training in avalanche safety procedures, according to Dale Atkins, who recently analyzed avalanche fatalities between 1999 and 2009 and compiled the results in a paper that paints a vivid statistical portrait of recent trends. More statistical information is compiled at the Westwide Avalanche Network.
During that 10-year span, 280 people died in 232 fatal avalanche accidents. Ninety percent of the victims were men, the mean age for all victims is 33, with the ages of victims ranging from 11 to 67. About 72 percent of the victims had some level of avalanche awareness training, and about 30 percent had a significant amount of training, Atkins said.
“For years it was thought these … people possessed little or no avalanche awareness training, but this is no longer true … (M)ost victims’ avalanche training generally lags far behind their activity skill level,” Atkins said.
Colorado’s share of the fatalities in the last 10 years is at 19 percent, but the state has reported nearly a third of all avalanche deaths in the U.S. if you go back to 1950, deemed the start of the modern avalanche era.
Avalanche deaths soared in the 1990s after reaching a 20-year low in the 1980s. The big spike was in the winter of 2007-2008, when 36 people died, setting a dubious record for the modern era. Since the end of the 1980s, the average number of fatalities per winter climbed from 11 to 30. That number decreased slightly in the mid-2000s but started edging back up again late in the decade.
Atkins is a former Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster and keeper of the statistical records. He works for RECCO AB, a company that makes a radar detection system designed to locate reflective chips that are now incorporated in coats, helmets and other outdoor gear.
The study also identifies rescue trends, but Atkins said it’s important to remember that the statistics are skewed toward deadly avalanches, since there is more information available. Not all close calls are reported, so the data on live rescues is not as complete, he said.
What the available data does show is that, despite the heavy emphasis on technology, the use of beacons is no guarantee of survival.
“Most people that wear beacons that get buried in avalanches die,” Atkins said. That trend has been especially evident in the last couple of winters, when nearly all avalanche victims were equipped with beacons — even in the snowmobile community, which has made big strides in catching up, Atkins said.
But beacons in trained hands are the key the successful recoveries for completely buried victims.
“It’s far better than any other method,” Atkins said.
In 274 rescues, 97 victims were found with transceiver searches, 39 of them alive, 58 dead. Organized probe lines found 41 victims, but only one of them was alive. Searchers using spot probes recovered 18 victims, but only three were alive.
Rescue dogs did not recover any victims alive in the past 10 years, but were able to help recover 30 dead bodies.
Atkins report also highlights several incidents of recklessness in the accident records. In some cases, the victim was the only member of a party not wearing a beacon. In other cases, the victims did not turn the devices on. In several other incidents, companions were not carrying shovels. Finally, the report also identifies situations when would-be rescuers couldn’t locate the signal of a buried companion and had to wait for organized rescue parties to arrive.
Atkins draws three main conclusions from the data, first and foremost that statistics don’t favor buried victims, who only have a 34 percent chance of survival, regardless all other factors. That means “avalanche survival is best practiced by avoidance,” he writes in his summary. Finally, in the worst-case scenario, speedy partner rescue is the key to survival. More than three-fourths (78 percent) of all live rescues were made by the victim’s companions.
The first story in this series highlights the importance of efficient companion rescue. Read it here.
The next story in the series will discuss some of the other factors in successful searches, including practice, probing and shoveling.
Filed under: Arapahoe Basin, avalanches, recreation, search and rescue, Ski Resorts, skiing and riding, snow, Snow and weather, Summit County Colorado Tagged: | A-Basin Beacon Bowl, Arapahoe Basin, avalanche rescue, avalanches, Colorado ski areas, Ski Resorts, skiing and riding, snow, snow safety, Summit County News