Andy Jessen was the mayor pro tempore of Eagle, Colorado. Sarah Moughamian, a lover of all things outdoors, spent all the free time she had in the Utah snow. Army Ranger Matthew Nyman survived a helicopter crash in Iraq that crushed his foot but he learned to climb again, most recently on Alaska’s Bear Mountain.
Jessen, Moughamian and Nyman are three of the 15 people who died in avalanches between February 1 and February 8. It’s the highest number of avalanche deaths recorded in a seven-day period since the US Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center started tracking deaths, according to Karl Birkeland, the center’s director.
The most recent avalanche death happened Monday, when Steve Houle, a 28-year veteran of the Washington State Patrol, was killed in Kittitas County, about an hour from Seattle. The other deaths occurred across six other states:
- Moughamian and three others were killed this weekend when an avalanche swept through a backcountry ski area near Salt Lake City on Saturday. Theirs are the most recent in a string of deaths caused by avalanches in six states:
- A 57-year-old Utah man was killed when he was caught in an avalanche near Park City Mountains Canyons Village resort a week ago, just a few miles from the site of Saturday’s avalanche.
- Jessen and two other skiers, who were all local government officials, were killed in an avalanche in Colorado on Monday. Their bodies were recovered Wednesday.
- In New Hampshire, the body of a skier was recovered Wednesday after an avalanche in the White Mountain National Forest.
- Five snowmobilers were caught Saturday in an avalanche on Montana’s Swan Range and one was buried in snow and subsequently died, according the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
- On February 3, a backcountry skier and snowboarder were caught in an avalanche near Etna Summit in California. The snowboarder survived but the skier was buried by snow and despite an hour of CPR by his partner, he was unable to be revived and died.
- In Alaska, Nyman and two other climbers were reported missing on February 2 after they had not returned from a hike on Bear Mountain in Chugach State Park. During the search, Alaska State Troopers discovered what appeared to be a recent avalanche. In the avalanche slide area, troopers found the bodies of the three missing climbers buried in the snow.
At least 21 people in the US have died in avalanches since the start of the season in December 2020, according to Avalanche.org, a site from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center that tracks nationwide avalanche accidents.
Avalanches caused devastating damage across the world this week, too: A glacier burst triggered an avalanche in India’s northern Uttarakhand state on Sunday, killing at least 19 people.
Why it’s been an active year for avalanches
There are two probable reasons why there have been more avalanche deaths this year: More people are enjoying the outdoors in the wilder parts of the West and a “really dangerous snow pack,” said Nikki Champion, a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center.
This year’s avalanche season has likely been more active because of a “persistent weak layer” of snow, she said.
Snowfall was relatively minor in November and December compared to years previously, and because there were periods of dryness in the early winter, that early snowfall doesn’t bond together, she said. That weak layer of snowfall is making up the base of the snowpack across the West, including Utah, Colorado and Montana. All the new snow is sitting on top of that weak base, Champion said.
That layer is more persistent in years past, too, she said. Utah and Colorado are experiencing less snow than usual, so that weak bottom layer is sticking around for months.
The uptick in deaths might also be explained by the increase in people visiting the West’s backcountry to ski and hike. Since many ski resorts have shuttered during the pandemic, “more people are choosing to enter the back country,” Champion said.
How to avoid getting stuck in an avalanche
Champion advises checking with local offices for the avalanche forecast. If you’re set on skiing through the backcountry, bring the appropriate avalanche gear, she says, including a shovel, beacon and probe – and take a partner with you.
The best advice, though, is avoiding areas where an avalanche might occur, Champion said.
“This isn’t really a problem you can outsmart,” she said.
For more information on how to avoid avalanches and what to do if you’re stuck in one, read this.