DENVER — Snowboarder Maurice Kervin glided into the snow along the steep terrain in the Colorado backcountry like he’s done so many times.
There was no warning for what happened next as he glanced over his shoulder: a rush of snow swiftly heading his way.
Caught in an avalanche last month, the 25-year-old deployed his airbag to help stay on the surface of the snow debris and rode out a slide large enough to bury a house. Once he finally — and safely — stopped, Kervin let out a powerful scream.
“Just raw emotion,” he explained. “Happy to be alive.”
This has been an historically dangerous avalanche season, with 32 confirmed fatalities so far, primarily in the West. The accidents have involved different recreational activities — snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling, hiking.
Avalanche experts are warning the threat of slides in the backcountry may only be growing worse due to a particularly unstable sort of snowpack that’s only seen about once a decade.
“I hope I’m wrong and we’re out of this cluster,” said Simon Trautman, a specialist at the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center. “But it won’t be because the conditions are changing. The danger isn’t going away. People’s decisions may change or the number of people in the backcountry may change because of the information but the conditions will not be the driver to get us out of this.”
Snow waiting to crumble
Here’s why the conditions are so unstable in the West, where all but one of the fatalities have occurred: Early fall snow was followed by a long dry period, creating a weak layer of snow. Strong storms in late January covered and preserved this weakness, making the conditions in parts of the backcountry look as enticing as ever — but with unsteady snow just waiting to crumble.
In the time of a pandemic, too, with more recreational enthusiasts having the opportunity or desire to retreat into the backcountry.
Among the deaths this season have been 15 skiers, eight snowmobilers, four snowboarders and four snowshoers/climbers/hikers. There were 15 confirmed fatalities from slides between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, which experts say was the most in a seven-day period since 1910.
The 10-year average for people killed in avalanches around the U.S. hovers around 26 per season, according to Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Colorado has reports of 11 killed by avalanches this season, the most of any state. Avalanche experts closely examine the accident reports and study the photos, looking for links to tie all these deadly slides together.
Really, though, they have nothing in common except maybe the unpredictability of the snowpack, which can be affected by windstorms shifting and piling snow atop weak layers and, of course, the ever-changing weather conditions.