Avalanches killed 37 people in the U.S. last winter, making it the most deadly season in modern history. Why was 2020-2021 so dangerous and how can we avoid avalanches this winter? Get the answers to these burning questions in our new winter safety series, dropping on the Out and Back podcast today.
In this four-part series, avalanche forecasters expose the factors that played into last season’s tragic fatalities. Tune in to hear the details of one of the most chilling avalanche accidents in Utah’s history. Learn how seasoned ski mountaineers make the tough decision to turn around just shy of the summit. And get a crash course on how to read an avalanche forecast so you can be plan safer routes on your next tour.
Listen to all four binge-worthy episodes at once, or pick them up in a random order. However you listen — don’t delay. Each episode gives you real, actionable insights that you can put to use in your next winter adventure.
Episode 43: How Last Winter Became the Deadliest Avalanche Season of All Time
Last winter was nothing short of a perfect storm. A dangerously weak snowpack plagued the entire nation. At the same time, people were hungrier than ever for fresh air and fun. This deadly combination clouded people’s judgment and put them at greater risk, says Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“Part of what we saw last year, I think, was that we were all living in a difficult environment,” Greene says. “And that made it hard going to the grocery store. It made it hard going to school. It made work hard. And when we had time away from those stresses and got to go into the mountains, it made making decisions in avalanche terrain difficult.”
The unusual circumstances also brought with it surprising demographics. Greene distills the statistics to tell us what age group, gender, and experience level was most at-risk for getting caught in an avalanche last year. Plus, Greene takes a look at they way conditions are stacking up for this season. Don’t get your hopes up. This season could be shaping up to be just as dangerous as the last.
Episode 44: Lessons from Utah’s Wilson Glade Avalanche
Last February, two separate backcountry ski parties headed out for what they thought was lower-angle, safer terrain in the Wilson Glade area of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. The avalanche risk was high that day, but the two parties were prepared. They studied the avalanche forecast, made conservative travel plans, and carried all the right safety gear into the mountains. But, precautions aside, the skiers were swept away in a colossal avalanche. Four of eight people died.
What went wrong?
Avalanche Forecaster Nikki Champion of the Utah Avalanche Center, investigated the accident. She gives her best insights on the lessons that can be gleaned from this tragic incident.
“I think this accident really hit home with a lot of backcountry users,” Champion says. “Because it was a lot of decisions that most of us could see ourselves making: being in lower-angle terrain, traveling one at a time, skiing the slope multiple times, and not seeing any obvious red flags in that area.”
Champion walks us through what we can learn from this tragic accident. Learn about how to spot and avoid connected terrain. She enlightens us on the dangers of uphill travel. Plus, hear how one survivor’s quick thinking and rescue skills saved the lives of others.
Episode 45: Avoiding Summit Fever with Ski Mountaineers Luke Smithwick and Iain Kuo
In the fall of 2021, ski mountaineers Luke Smithwick and Iain Kuo attempted an unsupported, first ski descent of the world’s seventh tallest peak — Mount Dhualagiri in Nepal. They spent weeks advancing to the mountain’s 26,705-foot summit, but high winds and increasing avalanche danger held them back from the top. After months of planning and training, Smithwick and Kuo were forced to retreat, leaving the ski record on the table for another day.
The decision to turn around didn’t come easy for Smithwick and Kuo. But sticking with an objective mindset helped them stave off summit fever. Their number one tip for making good decisions in the mountains? Erase any assumption of how things will play out.
“I have zero expectations going into the mountains,” Smithwick says. “I’m like, wow, the car started, we’re leaving town. Great. Let’s celebrate that. Okay guys, everyone celebrate.”
Smithwick and Kuo review their decision to turn around just shy of Dhualagiri’s unusually harsh and exposed summit. They check their decision-making process and their egos against the popular FACETS acronym that is widely taught in Avalanche 1 courses. Tune in to this conversation to learn where Smithwick and Kuo nailed the human factors, along with a few vulnerabilities that they have to constantly work to keep in check.
Episode 46: How to Read the Avalanche Forecast
Checking the avalanche forecast should be at the top of your safety checklist. It predicts the avalanche danger for your favorite zones and give you a heads up on worrisome problems within the snowpack. But how much stock can you really put into the daily avy forecast report?
US Forest Service Avalanche Expert Simon Trautman says avalanche forecasts should be your building block for planning a safe day in the backcountry. However, once your feet are on the snow, the forecast always takes a back seat to your observations in the field.
“The whole point behind the avalanche forecast is that they’re a starting point for your daily planning,” Trautman says. “But people need to understand that what they’re doing is providing an expert’s idea of a pattern that exists across the landscape.
“They’re great resources but it’s kind of like a weather forecast. If you get out there and it said no rain and it starts raining on you, you need to reassess and you need to figure out what that means for your plan that day. Do you just continue to have your picnic or do you change plans?”
Tune in as Trautman dissects the avalanche forecast into manageable sections. He teaches us the first things to look at and how to get the most out of the avalanche forecast when planning your next tour.
Episode 20: Avalanche Safety Tips with Bruce Tremper
If you need more ammo in your avalanche safety arsenal, go back and listen to Out and Back’s episode 20 with renown avalanche expert Bruce Tremper. Author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and Avalanche Essentials, Tremper draws on his 30-plus year career in snow science to give us his masterful tips for avoiding avalanches. His advice is pretty simple: stick to low-angle terrain.
“Whenever there is uncertainty in the snowpack, the terrain is always the answer,” Tremper says. “You can cut your risk in half from going from 39 degrees down to 34 degrees. And you can cut your risk in half once again by going from 34 degrees down to 30 degrees. The handiest tool that you can use in all the world of avalanches is slope steepness.”
Learn Tremper’s low risk safety ritual and get some advice on what to do if the unthinkable happens and you get caught in an avalanche.
Episode 21: Buried Alive — Bruce Tremper Tells His Story
It’s almost impossible to grasp the power and force of avalanches, unless of course you’ve actually been caught in one. Avalanche expert Bruce Tremper brings us a little closer to that experience with his story about how he triggered — and was buried in — an avalanche in Montana. He describes the feeling of having the “rug pulled out” from under his skis, being swept down the steep mountain, and what it felt like when the avalanche finally roared to a stop. Go back to episode 21 of the Out and Back podcast to get the blow-by-blow from Tremper on how he survived the avalanche that should have killed him.
Tap into these Avalanche Safety Resources
Visit avalanche.org for safety resources and avalanche forecasts in your area.
Sign up for avalanche awareness and rescue courses with American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
Watch the Know Before You Go video to get pumped about avalanche safety.
Consider donating to your local avalanche center so they can keep those avalanche forecasts coming your way!