Avalanche safety is complex and challenging. The risk that an avalanche may occur can never be eliminated, but our member ski resorts, and their experienced ski patrol, take numerous steps to ensure that the risks of encountering an avalanche within the ski area boundary are substantially mitigated. At ski resorts, and within their boundaries, avalanche safety is a top priority.
The overwhelming majority of avalanche incidents occur in the backcountry, which means any area outside of a ski area boundary that is not patrolled. Skiing in these areas takes skill, knowledge, and discipline. During the 2020-21 season, for example, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) there were 37 fatalities (most in the last 10 years) from avalanches in the United States and all of them occurred in the backcountry.
CAIC’s Statistics by Year and Location of Avalanche Incidents
There are, however, many ski resorts with terrain that is avalanche-prone. While ski patrol will use their best efforts to mitigate that hazard, skiers and snowboarders must be aware that the avalanche risk is still present on steeper terrain.
Despite the risks associated with avalanches, five percent of all U.S. avalanche fatalities since 2010 have involved guests skiing or snowboarding in-bounds. Industry avalanche experts uniformly agree that, whether in-bounds at a ski resort or in the backcountry, avalanches are an inherent risk of the sport. Although the industry has a solid track record, avalanche mitigation is an imperfect science. “Ski patrols can minimize the danger to an extremely low level but they can’t completely eliminate it,” noted Karl Birkeland, PhD., the director of the United States Forest Service Avalanche Center, which monitors avalanche activity in national forests. Member ski resorts use various mitigation efforts to minimize the risk of avalanches, including explosives, ski cutting, snow pits, and detailed slope analysis.
Individual, personal responsibility remains a hallmark of avalanche precaution and preparedness. Skiers and snowboarders should ski with at least one partner, and keep those partners within sight. Strict adherence to trail and terrain closures can also reduce the risk of avalanches. Those who ski extreme terrain should carry avalanche equipment, including – at minimum – transceivers, probes, and shovels. Skiers and riders accessing extreme terrain should ski the slope one at a time, rather than in a group—especially when the terrain is first opened after a large storm, when many avalanches occur. Also, when headed to avalanche-prone terrain or into the backcountry, skiers and boarders should always let their friends and family know where and when they are going. If you are unsure about conditions, check with ski patrol about open and closed terrain, and current avalanche conditions.
Skiing and snowboarding, as with any high-risk activity or sport, requires education, awareness, the right equipment, and good judgment to make the sport as safe as possible, and this is especially true given the vagaries of avalanches. For anyone considering skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry, avalanche education is essential, and the resources are plentiful. Avalanche professionals have written numerous books on the subject.
For an introduction to avalanche safety, please watch this exceptional video featuring some of the best athletes in the world and visit kbyg.org:
For more information, contact these avalanche professionals:
Sierra Avalanche Center
10500 Bridge St # 3725
Truckee, CA 96160
Recorded Avalanche Advisory: (530) 587-3558 x258
Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center
P.O. Box 1505
Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546
So Cal Snow Avalanche Center
P.O. Box 10282
Canoga Park, CA 91309
Mt. Shasta Avalanche Center and Wilderness Dept.
Mt. Shasta Ranger Station
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
204 West Alma Street
Mount Shasta, CA 96067
Karl Birkeland, PhD., Director
USDA Forest Service, National Avalanche Center