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Scary Start to Winter Season in the West

January 9th, 2009

For much of the West, conditions of instability in the snowpack and a high number of avalanche incidents have led to increased anxiety about snow safety for many this winter.  Reports of three separate incidents involving in-bounds avalanche fatalities, the most in over a quarter century, is causing worry among skiers that reaches beyond the backcountry community. New York Times ran an article today by Christina Erb covering these incidents and the reaction from resorts and local skiers where incidents have occurred. According to the article, many western resorts are burning through avalanche control budgets and using greater measures, like deterring skiers from avi-prone areas, to help prevent in-bounds slides. The reaction from skiers has been a much heightened awareness about snow danger and the use of added caution on the hill, even in-bounds.
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The instability in the snowpack this season is the result of early snow and rain that produced a weak, unconsolidated layer. This was followed by multiple heavy snowfall events that added stress to the snowpack and lead to more avalanche-prone conditions. The alarming number of slides and avalanche fatalities, both backcountry and in-bounds, will surely encourage more folks to seek out information on snow behavior and avalanche safety. One resource on backcountry travel I like is called Snow Sense by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler. It’s a concise guide to evaluating snow dangers, and good reference following an avalanche safety course.

Photo courtesy of Charlie Parr

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