A very interesting article from the National Avalanche Center this week:
Analyzing data from the past 22 years for both snowmobile and backcountry ski and snowboarders, the National Avalanche Center concluded that the number of avalanche caused fatalities has essentially remained relatively flat.
Although, even a single death is one too many and a horrible tragedy, this study does indicate some good news. When you put the data in context, the critical variable is that the number of backcountry users on skis, boards and snowmobiles during the same time period has increased enormously – and in fact exploded. In some areas, backcountry use as increased 60 fold during the same time period. Increased backcountry use is due largely to better equipment and technology and simply a change in mountain culture.
So why has the fatality rate remained flat while during the same period of time backcountry use has exploded? The study credits better hazard awareness and education as well as better monitoring of conditions and technology permitting fast and broad dissemination of information.
Karl Birkeland, the articles’ author and a well known avalanche expert, concludes “Assuming a conservative estimate of use increasing 8 times and combining it with our flat fatality trend means our fatality rate (avalanche fatalities per backcountry user day) has dropped dramatically. In fact, this suggests that our fatality rate has dropped by at least a factor of 8 (and probably more) over the past 22 years. If our fatality rate had stayed steady while the use increased we might well expect over 200 U.S. avalanche fatalities per winter!”
This is good news overall, and certainly makes a great case for continued education and safety training. For more information on training in the Northwest, please visit the Northwest Avalanche Center. Know before you go!