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Avalanche death usually occurs at the intersection of science and human nature.
The conditions are mainly dictated by the snowbag, the danger is often hidden far under the fresh dust – out of sight, sometimes even with that in mind. People are promised fresh air and fluffy snow.
This winter, however, another factor may have contributed to the sudden jump in deaths: Covid-19.
At least 14 people died in seven avalanches in the first week of February. In at least a century, it was the most recreational death in avalanches in the United States, experts said.
The death toll rose Monday in Washington when a 51-year-old snowy cyclist was buried in an avalanche and later found dead.
“The snowbag is the first reason – people die because it’s very dangerous,” said Simon Trautman, an avalanche expert at the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center. “The issue is the second-order or third-order effect. I don’t know, but I know there are more people out there because of Covid. There is no doubt about that.
Avalanche experts say this season would be dangerous without a pandemic. Early snow, followed by a dry period in much of the west, created a weak first layer of snow. Recent storms have thrown huge, heavy loads on top of the weak layer – snow that lures people outdoors, but also threatens to crush the support below and steer it all down in the physical battle between gravity and friction.
The only deviation on the slope that is silently willing to let go may be the narrow line between excitement and tragedy.
An average of 25 people have died in avalanches in the United States each winter over the past decade. This season, 21 people died by Sunday, according to reports compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Deadly avalanches are almost always triggered by humans. The people captured in them are usually among those who inadvertently set in motion the snow.
On Saturday, eight back skiers were caught in an avalanche in Utah; four died. On the same day in Montana, a snowmobile trapped a trap that killed one of them.
Earlier last week, three Colorado skiers died in an avalanche. The next day, an avalanche killed three hikers in Alaska. The day after, two people were buried in California and one died.
Experts are analyzing the anecdotal evidence and looking for answers that go beyond the scientific danger of this year’s winter snowbag.
“It’s hard to lead a direct relationship with Covid, but I think we can lead an indirect relationship,” said Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center. “Across the country, we’ve seen a sequel to what we’ve seen this summer, with more and more people going out into our public spaces. This winter, we saw more and more people in the hinterland, whether on skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles. And with more people, you have a greater chance of people getting involved in avalanches. “
Experts say most of the victims were experienced in the hinterland, dispelling assumptions that they are ill-equipped new adventurers who are desperate for socially remote outdoor activities. Most were men between the ages of 40 and 50, although on Saturday in Utah the victims were all around the age of 20 and there were two women. Examination of the avalanches showed that the victims had the recommended beacons, probes and shovels.
In Colorado this winter, all eight victims were men over the age of 40. According to Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, all but one have significant experience in the country.
And while some accidents occurred right outside the ski areas, where lifts and loose borders provide quick access to tantalizing dust runs (so-called “By-passes”), most occurred in remote areas where hiking or climbing was required.
This has led some experts to assume that experienced back skiers, who want to avoid the unusual crowds of the season, will dive deeper and deeper into unfamiliar terrain, all in extremely dangerous conditions.
“It’s a lot of conjecture, but it’s really part of the discussion we’re having around these things,” Birkeland said.
There is also speculation that nearly one-year restrictions related to the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 disease may make people fit for the risks. On January 30, a 57-year-old expert skier died in an avalanche outside the Park City Mountain Resort.
His ski partner, who witnessed the slide and could not save him, said the coronavirus epidemic “had an effect.”
“I now realize that I am exhausted from the 10 months of almost constant stress that Covid is worried about because of my family, friends, my job, etc.,” the unidentified partner said in the accident report. – In addition, financial stress, school closures, physical contact with family / friends, etc. As a result, my typical workout, motivation, and mental reflection were much less than in a normal fall / winter period. “
Such correlations are inaccurate. In Europe, where an average of 100 people die in avalanches every winter, 56 people have died this season. That’s one more than last winter as a whole, but far less than the 128 who died in 2017-18.
The head of the Swiss Mountain Guide Association told reporters last month that Covid could dampen the decision-making process for backcountry skiers who may be too eager to go outdoors and tired of the free time constrained by the virus rules.
Greene, of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, says he thinks there’s something about it, complementing the conditions of the snowbag he’s used to every decade of the year.
“The environment we all live in is stressful,” Greene said. “It affects your interactions with the people in the grocery store, and it also affects how you can make decisions in avalanche terrain.”
Mistakes in the hinterland don’t have to be big to be fatal.
In typical times, the seasonal difference is almost entirely based on the snow bag, which can change significantly on one of the slopes depending on the complex combination of slope angle, sunlight, wind, temperature, and other factors. (Common factor: Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Any steeper and falling snow usually does not accumulate in the required amount. Any shallower and snow often does not move from gravitational forces.)
The avalanche forecast is made locally – about 65 full-time forecasters, most of whom work for the U.S. Forest Service or the state of Colorado.
Conditions in the Colorado Rockies may be completely different from, for example, the Washington Cascades or the California Sierra Nevada.
But this season was unusual as there was early snowfall similar to the huge waves in the West, which was left exposed to the elements for weeks. This generally thin layer formed brittle, sugar-like crystals.
Like a house built on a bad foundation, this year’s snow cover is also precariously lying on top of this layer.
The National Avalanche Center compiles the latest forecasts on an interactive map on its website.
“Last week was impressive because as the storms passed, you could see different parts of the country glowing and glowing red or in some cases even black, which is the highest hazard rating,” Trautman said. “You can see that the wave of instability and danger is just rolling up the middle of the West. It’s not that it doesn’t happen any other time, but it was very dramatic. “
And deadly. While the biggest storms are over, for now, the weak snow layer is likely to persist throughout the season. This is science.
The human natural part of the equation is the variable that determines how many lives are lost.