Six avalanche deaths in two weeks highlight need for safe backcountry travel

Woman skiing (Dreamstime/TNS)

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Woman skiing (Dreamstime/TNS)

Over the past month, six people have died in avalanches in Washington state.

The normal 10-year average is 3.8 deaths, said Scott Schell, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center. The deaths highlight the importance of proper equipment, training and foresight when traveling in the backcounty, Schell said.

Although the full details of the deaths aren’t clear yet, Schell emphasized three basic things anyone can do to make backcountry travel safer.

—Get the avalanche forecast.

—Get the gear (transceiver, probe, shovel).

—Get trained (understand how to use the forecast, and how to use the gear).

“If we could get every single person and party to do those three things, we’d be markedly ahead of the curve,” he said.

While Schell is quick to emphasize that the causes for the spike in deaths is not yet known, he thinks unusual snow conditions may be playing a role.

“What we’ve had this year is some persistent weak layers, and a lot of the backcountry travelers in the Northwest are more familiar with other types of avalanches,” he said.

Persistent weak layers can last for weeks, or the entire season. Mountains in the Northwest get persistent weak layers every season.

“We don’t experience them as regularly” as other parts of the country, Schell said.

“Several of these fatal accidents have occurred with persistent weak layers,” he said.

What’s more common in the Northwest are avalanche conditions caused by winter weather, such as large dumps of snow and wind. That kind of avalanche danger can be easier to avoid because it only lasts a day or two.

“It’s easier for backcountry travelers to avoid,” Schell said: “Wow, it snowed 2 feet today. I’m going to go bowling today instead.”

Schell emphasizes that with the right training and preparation, backcountry travel can be safe and fun. But it’s vital that backcountry travelers know what they’re doing, and he encourages people to watch the avalanche forecast.

“If it’s high avalanche danger you can still go out, but the trick is to just avoid avalanche terrain,” he said. “Because avalanches only occur in avalanche terrain.”

There have been 18 avalanche fatalities nationwide this season, according to, a website that consolidates and publishes avalanche information from the American Avalanche Association and the U.S. Forest Service.

There have been three fatalities in Idaho and two in Montana.

On a recent Saturday, Spokane, Wash., mountaineer John Latta led a group of seven into the backcountry near Stevens Peak on the Idaho/Montana border. Latta, who has been skiing in the area for years and knows the terrain well, never goes into the backcountry without thoroughly assessing the conditions.

“One should always assume there is an avalanche risk and make conservative choices for the situation,” he said in an email. “I try to always use the same safety protocols regardless of the snowpack stability.”

Incremental snow over the course of several days made him feel good about heading out. Plus, the group was experienced.

“What we skied on the way up was safe,” he said. “And the runs we did on the way down were not that exposed to hazards. There is always a risk when you go into the backcountry. But everyone in the group was a good skier and we followed the right protocol for skiing.”

For years, Latta has been leading the charge to get the U.S. Forest Service to manage the Stevens Peak area for nonmotorized winter travel. As part of that, he runs the Backcountry Film Festival. Proceeds from that festival support the Winter Wildland Alliance and the protection of nonmotorized winter recreation in the Lookout Pass-Stevens Peak area. He’s also a founder of the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance.

The area boasts world-class backcountry skiing, Latta said, and he hopes to protect it from motorized snow vehicles.

Erik Schmidt was a participant in the Saturday Stevens Peak ski. He has stayed out of the backcountry for most of the season because of the snow conditions, but he said the weather and snow were perfect.

“It has been a challenging snowpack for most of the season,” he said in a message. “The temperature swings that seem to be the new normal here in the Inland Northwest are certainly causing problems. Fortunately, our local snowpack settled down a bit over the last two to three weeks. … I think everyone is hoping for a drier spring so we can keep heading out.”

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