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Why The 2021 U.S. Avalanche Season Is Breaking Grim Records

In this Jan. 18, 2020 photo, trekkers are being rescued in a helicopter a day after an avalanche hit Mount Annapurna trail in Nepal. (Phurba Ongel Sherpa/AP)
In this Jan. 18, 2020 photo, trekkers are being rescued in a helicopter a day after an avalanche hit Mount Annapurna trail in Nepal. (Phurba Ongel Sherpa/AP)

An extraordinary number of people have died over the last few months from avalanches in Alaska, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and New Hampshire.

In the first week of February alone, at least 14 people were killed in avalanches in the U.S., making it one of the deadliest weeks in 100 years. In total, 22 people have died since December.

Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks national avalanche fatalities, says the high number of deaths just this month is concerning.

"We’re only halfway through the season and we’re three quarters of the way to the number of fatalities we’d see in a typical year," he says.

The dangerous, record-breaking year "keeps avalanche forecasters up at night," he says.

This avalanche season is particularly deadly due to the "pronounced and reactive weak layer" within the snowpack structure in many locations, making it easy for backcountry skiers or snowmobilers to trigger a potential catastrophe, Lazar explains.

Snow loading, the downward force on a mountain by the weight of snow and ice, can also naturally trigger an avalanche, he says.

This year, forecasters have even seen massive avalanches prompted by people who are physically far away from the scene, he says.

On Saturday in Montana, an avalanche trapped several snowmobilers, killing one of them. While these events can happen spontaneously, Lazar says many times, people caught in avalanches are the ones who triggered it.

Forecasters tracking avalanches in remote mountains rely mostly on human observations. Staff members of avalanche centers across the western U.S. go into the field and monitor activity, he says.

"But of course, with the vast amount of terrain that’s out there, we can’t see everything," he says, so they often depend on ski resort patrols, professional organizations and the general public.

But relying on crowdsourcing means the true number of avalanches is likely under recorded, he says.

There are ways to mitigate avalanche danger, especially near roads. Often these strategies involve a planned explosion done by hand or through devices that send charges into a slope.

"More and more across the western U.S., you’re seeing these remote avalanche control systems where you’ve got fixtures in place that you can detonate remotely through a laptop," he says.

People need to prepare before heading out into the backcountry. There are three main pillars that will help keep you safe as you adventure through the snow, he says.

First, look at the avalanche forecast in the area you're about to traverse before suiting up and heading out. You should also be equipped, at minimum, with an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe, he says. Bring along a partner who is well versed in using these tools, he suggests.

The third and final pillar is taking an avalanche safety lesson. Courses are widely available, he says, and can teach you not only to interpret forecasts but how to curate a trip appropriate for the weather conditions.

Experts leading the lessons will also have you practice with specific rescue gear "so you know what to do and are proficient in the event something goes wrong," he says.

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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