Last week, about 90 miles west of Denver, a massive avalanche scoured the East Vail Chutes' steep backcountry terrain. The slide, which occurred on a beautiful day and not one deemed to be particularly hazardous, was described as a couple hundred yards wide, 10 feet deep and reportedly covered nearly 1,000 vertical feet. It buried two skiers and two snowboarders; one of them, 24-year-old Tony Seibert, grandson of Vail co-founder Peter Siebert Sr., died.
The recent tragedy brings this season's national avalanche death toll to five. A snowmobiler who was buried in a slide near Big Sky on New Year's Day became the first U.S. avalanche fatality of 2014.
While such grim tales may seem to be part of a troubling trend—more backcountry users means more avalanche deaths—a joint 2010 research paper between Kent State University and Northern Illinois University, entitled "Avalanche Fatalities in the Western United States," suggests otherwise.
Despite the fact that the backcountry segment is booming—it's currently the ski industry's biggest market—the western states' avalanche death toll seems to correlate more with seasonal environmental factors than purely with increased use. For example, in the 1998-99 season, there were 31 fatalities. In 2008-09, there were 27, and last season, according to avalanche.org, 24 people lost their lives in avalanches. More users, it seems, doesn't necessarily equate to more deaths.
So, what's the takeaway? I'm not sure. Hopefully, it means backcountry users are savvier, and enrolling in avalanche safety classes with greater frequency. Maybe technology also has helped—today's avalanche beacons are certainly more accurate and easier to use than those from years past, and airbag packs represent the biggest significant safety improvement since the proliferation of transceiver use. Another possible explanation is awareness. It could be that skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and climbers are steering clear of known danger zones.
Still, the only real way to avoid avalanche danger is to be informed. If you are planning any winter adventures this year—and you should be—take one of the many avalanche safety classes offered locally, like at Three Sisters Backcountry (threesistersbackcountry.com) and Oregon Ski Guides (oregonskiguides.com). Get acquainted with general avalanche safety and science at one of the free Know Before You Go programs (Note: NOT a substitute for a certified course) offered by the Central Oregon Avalanche Association (coavlanche.org) and hosted at Broken Top Bottle Shop. The next one is at 6pm on Jan. 15 and there's another at 6pm on Feb. 19. While COAA is not a forecasting site, it does offer a message board where locals can post daily conditions reports regarding popular backcountry areas, like the bowl at Tumalo Mountain.
Winter Adventure Event Guide
Sunnyside Qualifier Nordic Race
January 25-26, Mt. Bachelor
$10-$20, register at mbsef.org
Skate race on Saturday, classic race on Sunday. 750m, 3k, 5k and 10k (depending on age group).
Cascade Crest Nordic Race
February 8, Mt. Bachelor
$20-$35, register at mbsef.org
A fun and challenging 15k and 25k mass start skate race.
Snowmobile Drag Races
February 8-9, Wanoga Sno-Park
register at 7am, racing starts at 10:30 am. more information at centraloregonsnowbusters.com
Third annual two-day race with cash and prizes for various categories, including Outlaw Class ("run what ya brung, winner takes all") and kids 120cc class.
Tour for the Heart
February 9, Mt. Bachelor
$25 at tourfortheheart.org
A fun, family oriented 5k Nordic ski or snowshoe event to raise awareness about heart disease. Clinics, food and more. Costumes encouraged.
February 14-16, Old Mill District
$6 at bendticket.com, $10 day of
Rail jam, obstacle course racing, snow sculptures, fire pits, food, drink and live music from Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Menomena and more.
February 22-23, Mt. Bachelor
register at mtbachelor.com
A sidecountry freeride festival featuring an uphill/downhill Randonee race, demos, clinics, food and beer.
Special Olympics Oregon Winter Games
March 8-9, Mt. Bachelor
more info at soor.org
More than 200 athletes compete in alpine skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.
Great Nordeen Nordic Race
March 15, Mt. Bachelor to Wanoga Sno-Park
register at mbsef.org
A 17k and 30k point-to-point freestyle race.