Avalanche deaths put skiers on heightened alert

A trio of avalanche deaths this winter have some avalanche experts worried about the increasing number of skiers looking for more challenging terrain and putting themselves in harm's way.

Three skiers have been caught and killed by avalanches on open runs at U.S. ski areas this winter. Although this season's weather created severe avalanche risks, experts say the spike is also a result of more skiers seeking avalanche-prone terrain.

"Fifteen years ago, you might have had 10 people hike through the snow to a certain area. Now you have hundreds," says Paul Baugher, course director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute in Enumclaw, Wash.

All of this year's ski-area avalanche deaths happened on expert ski runs that took extra effort to get to, such as climbing over a ridge line and dropping into the area, says Baugher, who is compiling a database of all avalanche incidents.

"The best snow is in the riskier spot that is prone to breaking loose," says Justin Kiedaisch, 35, an extreme skier in Squaw Valley, Calif. "It's exciting to ski that stuff."

Kiedaisch says he has been caught in 10 to 15 "slides" over the past 10 years.

As skiers demanded more challenging terrain, resorts provided it, and ski manufacturers created new, wide and lightweight skis that made it easier to access more extreme slopes, says Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Idaho.

Jerry Blann, president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, says skiers long have flocked to Jackson Hole for its wide, steep terrain straddling the boundary between Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest. "It's certainly being skied more now," he says.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there have been 10 avalanche fatalities since 1980 that occurred on open ski runs.

That "means one fatality per 100 million skier visits," says Dean Cardinale, director of the ski patrol at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, in Utah.

The biggest factors for avalanches this season were early snowfall and very cold temperatures in October, November and early December, Abromeit says. Cold causes snow to become granular and weak, he says.

"In mid-December, the West got hit by a series of storms, creating a thick layer of snow on top of this very weak layer," Abromeit says. The unstable conditions were unusual because they were so widespread, affecting ski areas from California to Utah.

At Snowbird, the ski patrol had barraged Mount Baldy with high explosives, 2-pound charges, artillery fire and test runs the morning of Dec. 14 to prevent avalanches. Despite the safety efforts, the mountain let loose a slide that killed a 27-year-old woman, according to the accident report.

Some areas are already requiring skiers to take more responsibility for their own safety. Bridger Bowl, in Bozeman, Mont., and Silverton Mountain, in Colorado, require skiers in certain areas of the resorts to have a partner and carry an avalanche beacon and a shovel.

Ski areas may also add avalanches to the list of "inherent risks" that skiers must acknowledge in writing before renting equipment or taking a class, Abromeit says.