A Winter To Forget | Why Is America Seeing So Many Avalanche Fatalities?

Persistent weak layers, an increase in backcountry skiing and metres of fresh powder. We chat with Adrian Ballinger about the unique dangers this winter has presented

With America just passing the halfway mark of the winter season, it has already passed a sad and tragic milestone with 27 avalanche fatalities occurring across eight western states. One death is a sad statistic in itself, but this is all the more hard-hitting when you consider an average of 27 people die in avalanches during a normal winter season in the United States.

Similar to the situation that developed in Europe, America is seeing an aligning of the stars that has created a particularly deadly year for those looking to travel in avalanche prone terrain.

We had a chat with UIAGM mountain guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian Ballinger, about the recent incidents in North America this season – and most importantly, what backcountry skiers and snowboarders can do to mitigate their risk while in avalanche terrain.

Pictured: Large avalanches have been observed across the western states.

Jordan: Am I right in saying that this has been the worst year in terms of avalanche fatalities in The States?

Adrian: “Yeah I mean, at this point of the season, it’s kind of the worst year. It’s not the most deaths of the season, but we’re obviously only in February. What triggered a lot of red flags for everybody was 15 fatalities in one week across the American West, with multiple accidents and many of them involving multiple people.”

Jordan: Yeah so tell me a bit about those avalanches. Were they in a specific region and was it a particular layer within the snowpack?

Adrian: “Yeah so a few things have happened. I think firstly we’ve had a uniquely weak snowpack across the American West. So you know, during ‘normal’ seasons, it would be pockets like a section of southern Colorado will have a really dangerous snowpack, or the Utah mountains in the Wasatch area.

“This season, it’s been California, Washington, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado [all at once]. We’ve experienced early season snows and then a long, dry high pressure period with really cold temperatures.

“Everyone familiar with working and playing in the snow knows that [high pressure] weakens of all those bonds and creates all these faceted layers. Then finally, in February everywhere started getting a lot of snow.

“I think there was a lot of pent up demand for getting out. We’re seeing an increase in users, then we had this uniquely weak snowpack that’s been difficult to predict, with deeper persistent weak layers instead of common stuff like wind slabs and storm slabs and all of that lead to a series of accidents across the west.”

“I think it’s really hard to just point to that and say ‘Ah, that’s our issue’”

Jordan: Ah okay, I see. Yeah and that is definitely very similar to what we had in the Alps. I wrote an article breaking down exactly what happened in the Alps. We had that classic high pressure. We’re calling it classic now, it’s not normally ‘classic’ in usual years, you know?
But we had November / December high pressure with very little snow and a very shallow snowpack, which essentially created this rotten snow ready for a load of snow to then dump on top of. It’s very interesting to see the similarities across the hemisphere.

Adrian: “That is interesting. I think it’s rare that it’s across the American West, but to hear that it’s also across Europe that’s interesting, you know?

“A lot of interviews I’ve been doing with the more mainstream press have been asking ‘Is this climate change?’ and I think it’s really hard to just point to that and say ‘Ah, that’s our issue’, but suddenly I think we might be seeing an increase in these unusual, or extreme weather events and what we’ve seen in the west I’d include both of those within the extreme [weather events].

“The dry period was so long, so widespread and then on the other side, the storm that came afterwards was so big. I’m sure climate change was a factor there as well as just bad luck.”

Jordan: Yeah, for sure. It definitely seems like the seasons are shifting. Normally in November / December five or so years ago, we’re usually expecting loads of snow to help build up that snowpack. These days we’re starting to see that consistent high pressure push through to kick off the winter season, which then leads to dangerous avalanche activity.
So let’s break this season down. I realise it’s bad to point fingers in these situations, but it’s obviously great to learn from people’s mistakes.

Adrian: “I think it is really important to try to learn from these situations, exactly like you said, not pointing fingers. I think the thing to remember is to look back at my 25-year career of backcountry skiing and think about the fact that I’m still here, but I can also pick out the times that I got lucky.

“I didn’t necessarily make the right decisions, but I got lucky. I think we have to remember that luck and not be pointing fingers. With that said, I think there are some factors coming into this season. You mentioned Covid, most of the accidents that have been happening in the United States are actually happening with experienced backcountry users and I think that’s been really important to us to kind of look inside that.”

“I didn’t necessarily make the right decisions, but I got lucky”

“A lot of the initial response was kind of like ‘Oh between Covid and backcountry skiers there’s all these new users, now look at all these accidents’. That is not how I read what is going on in the United States.

“I think newer backcountry skiers are going to safer and easily accessed backcountry terrain, so the ‘experts’ probably feel a desire to get away from those busier areas. So we [the experts] go bigger, we go deeper and so I think there is a human factor affecting our decision making.

“Then I think an unusual season like this is catching us off guard. So often we get this bias that tells us ‘it didn’t slide, it didn’t slide, it didn’t slide’ so we keep building up telling ourselves that we made the right decisions. Even though it didn’t slide, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we made the right decision in that case. It just means it didn’t slide that day.

Pictured: Adrian Ballinger skis Tram Ridge

“A number of accidents have been happening in areas that are considered ‘safe zones’ on more dangerous days and they turn out not to be safe in a cycle like this one. Our guiding company has closed probably 60% of our usable terrain during the last cycle, just because nothing was sliding, or snowpit data wasn’t that bad.

“The unpredictability of the current persistent slab layers were such that we didn’t want our guides to have to make those decisions while in the field, while feeling pressure from our clients to ski the good snow or the steeper lines.”

“We didn’t want our guides to have to make those decisions”

Jordan: Yeah and that’s really interesting as, again, there’s that similarity with European resorts. Verbier, I don’t know if you saw, had a lot of bad avalanches – and sadly fatalities. It was this persistent buried depth hoar that was sliding and the big problem with that was the lack of skier compaction throughout the season.
Normally throughout the season you’d expect to see thousands of people to pass through a couloir, but we’re not seeing this across the whole Alps. Are we seeing this lack of skier compaction in North America as well? 

Adrian: “I don’t think we’re experiencing that. That might be the difference between Europe and the US in the response to Covid. Really ski resorts and ski towns are as busy, or busier than I’ve ever seen before.

“Our ski resorts are busy and more people than ever are going out the gates”

“Certain ski resorts are putting on day ticket limits, but our ski resorts are busy and more people than ever are going out the gates, into what some people call ‘sidecountry’ terrain right outside of the resorts, and certainly our backcountry terrain is busier than I’ve ever seen in.

“So I don’t think we’re lacking that skier compaction. I think that’s an issue unique to some of the places you mentioned. I used to be blown away by some of the things we’d ski in La Grave and Chamonix in my initial seasons, not necessarily having it in my brain thinking about skier compaction and breaking down of those layers actually is happening on those classic lines, so I think that’s a bit different to what we’re seeing here.”

Ski touring is busier than ever. Photo: Jordan Tiernan

Jordan: Yeah, I saw it as the ‘perfect storm’; we had this extremely weak persistent layer sitting below all this fresh snow, then we had an increase in backcountry participation because the resorts are closed and then we had the lack of skier compaction because, again, the resorts are closed.
So we have a huge increase of skiers in the backcountry skiing on these very dangerous layers on what looks to be very easy safe terrain. It’s very interesting to hear that there’s more people than ever in the backcountry in The States.

Adrian: “There’s absolutely an increase in backcountry usership and I think we kind of all have to blame ourselves. You know, Mpora and myself as an athlete and my guide company. For 10-15 years, we’ve all been screaming how great the backcountry is and how sacred and pristine – and now people are listening.

“We’ve all been screaming how great the backcountry is … and now people are listening”

“I want to own that. I’m not saying fewer people should use the backcountry, we just need to figure out how to do it as responsibly as possible and make sure people are understanding the risks they’re choosing to take, at whatever level of the sport they’re at.”

Jordan: Right now we’re talking about the beginner backcountry enthusiast, but again you spoke earlier about the experts. 
What can, and should, people be doing right now in terms of overcoming the classic ‘Expert Bias’ heuristic that catches so many experienced backcountry skiers off guard? Let’s say they go on one of your courses, get their AIRE Level 1 and then they instantly go and take four people into the backcountry and get themselves in trouble. What do you think can be done to mitigate this risk?

Adrian: “Yeah, you know I think one of the funny things about the AIRE level 1 is that as much as it’s meant to be teaching people the basic skills to get into the backcountry, I think it’s also meant to scare us about how much we don’t know and how hard it is to forecast and predict. That’s why so many case studies are in the AIRE level 1 curriculum focusing especially on these human factors, because it is just scratching the surface as you know.

“I’m not saying fewer people should use the backcountry, we just need to figure out how to do it as responsibly as possible”

“What can be done? Well I could go back to kind of the basics when I’m out ski touring with my friends everyday as well as when I’m guiding. Communication amongst the group I think is the single biggest thing we can do. Understanding experience levels; what our risk tolerance is and goals are for that day; how we’re going to manage new information that might go against what we’re planning; how we’re going to manage talking about that and communicating it; do we have a veto power; is it a democracy?

An AIRE Level 1 course. Credit: Alpenglow Expeditions

“If every day we go out with new groups, those things actually get pretty complicated, so I really try to take a few minutes each day to try to talk about that.

“Every day should start with communicating the fact that we don’t know everything we need to know about this snowpack. We’re not in a stepping out phase, we’re in more of a knowledge gathering and a conservative phase. So, I think communication, understanding those unknowns and recognising and talking about those accidents and what we’ve been seeing and how these have been happening anyway.

“A lot of the US accidents have been with groups skinning up in 20 degree terrain”

“With newer users, I think it’s especially important to focus right back on the three things you need for an avalanche: you need snow, you need a trigger and then the third thing is that you need slope angle.

“A lot of the US accidents have been with groups skinning up in 20 degree terrain, but connected with 38 degree terrain and things like that and so not losing sight that avalanches can be larger than what they normally are in seasons like this. Really dialling in terrain selection and slope angle are the two things we can really start to dial in on.”

Jordan: How about the snowpack right now? I’m guessing a lot of the bad snow has flushed out now. Are there some particularly bad layers right now that people should be looking out for?

Adrian: “I mean in Tahoe where I am we’re quite lucky that our deep layers have been buried quite deep. We’ve been through a big cycle that cleared out a lot of layers. Stuff has gone quite dormant and our avalanche risk is lowering, so in Tahoe specially we’ve been starting to open up and getting out onto more terrain and we’ll see how the next storms line up.

“I think that’s really different than the likes of Colorado and Utah are still seeing accidents, they’re still seeing this cycle and they’ve got some weeks left before [the risk lowers].

Photo: Very large natural avalanche estimated date of occurrence is 2/16/2021 on the east-facing side of Expectation Mountain in the San Juan Mountains. Credit: Skippie Zellar / CAIC

“It wasn’t that long ago most backcountry skiers focused their steep objectives in spring, in April/May. I think there really has been a tendency with new equipment and ski films and all the rest of like wanting to ski stuff in true midwinter powder conditions.

“We’re suddenly taking on more risk and you’ve got to pick and choose your days more carefully during that time and I don’t think now is the time in the American West.”

“We’re suddenly taking on more risk”

Jordan: So obviously brands are loving that they’re selling out ski touring equipment. What responsibility do you think brands should be taking on? Technology’s advancing with bindings and skis to make the backcountry so accessible. Do you think brands should be stepping up and taking on more of a responsibility?

Adrian: “Absolutely. I think there’s a responsibility in the whole backcountry skiing industry, where we’re encouraging people to go out and take more risks. We can’t stop talking about that risk. We can’t stop talking about films, videos and things like that, that not only show the sick powder moment or the perfect cliff jump, but we also have to show the [behind the scenes].

“We can’t stop talking about that risk”

“If you think about all the pro skiers that go to Alaska, in the film you see the ten seconds, but they might’ve been there for three weeks, waiting for the right day, scouting the line, etc. I think we need to spend more time showing that backside.”

Jordan: Do you think over a period of ten or so years, do you think the conversations have really picked up in the community.

Adrian: “Yeah, I absolutely think the conversations and awareness and focus on education is increasing in the community. The best example I have that is of how many of the pro or very experienced named locals we have now going through our avalanche programmes.

“People who have been skiing for decades and have great gut feelings / awareness, and they’re wanting to get out there and are realising that formal education is a big part of this and we never stop learning and I think that’s great and I think it is a change.”

Jordan: With that increase in participation, have you seen an increase in bookings for your courses?

Adrian: “Yeah, Alpenglow Expeditions has just seen massive growth, specifically with backcountry skiing. We’ve been doubling in size from a small guiding company. The biggest example I’ve got of this year is that we were pretty much fully booked out for avalanche courses by December for most of the season and most of our weekends were also booked for private guiding.

“And that’s a challenge as guiding companies can’t grow infinitely or quickly enough. There’s a very limited pool of those guides and so we struggle to get bigger, so the question is: what do people who can’t get into our programme? I think there are some challenges there. I think there are some good online resources like the BCA website, Petzl and Safe As Clinics.”

“All of this is nothing new, we’ve all had these conversations with dozens of professional and recreational users but I think it still helps to keep talking about these things.”

Jordan: How do you see the rest of the season panning out? You spoke about the bad layers in Utah, didn’t you? I guess you’ll expect that there’ll be more incidents?

Adrian: “Yeah, I don’t think we’re finished with the rough season. These layers do still exist in many places especially in Utah and Colorado and the cycle that I’m seeing setting up is kind of more of the same. We’re about to go into a ten day dry / cold period, so we’re going to have new layers to deal with. They’re not as dangerous, they’re maybe more like a normal season, but then the potential of those to step down to weaker layers below really do concern me.

“I think we do have a few more weeks where caution is going to be the right way to go.

“It’s funny having interviews like this. All of this is nothing new, we’ve all had these conversations with dozens of professional and recreational users but I think it still helps to keep talking about these things.

“When I go out the next day, I’m going to remember Chris Davenport talking about this, or my local shop friends, or you. I think that helps, to keep us all kind of like ‘are we all making those decisions and managing those human factors as soon as we can?’”

*** Adrian is a UIAGM mountain guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions. If you’d like to learn more about the avalanche safety courses Alpenglow are running, then check them out here ***

You May Also Like

Best Avalanche Safety Products 2021

8 Tips To Master The Steep Turn | Steep Skiing

The Origins of Skiing With Paddy Graham

Watch Candide Thovex Do “A Bit of Skiing”


Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.