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More Avalanche Deaths In Western U.S.


The U.S. is on track for the deadliest avalanche season in half a decade. Three more people died in the backcountry in Colorado and Montana over the weekend. NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Dave Zinn is an avalanche forecaster in the Gallatin National Forest in Montana. He says two people set out yesterday on snowboards to ride an area called Beehive Basin.

DAVE ZINN: As they were climbing up to the ridge line, they triggered the avalanche. The slope fractured and cracked around them. One was able to fight his way off the slab, grabbing trees.

MANN: Zinn says the second border couldn't fight free and died after being swept down the slope.

ZINN: He impacted a tree, and that's where he came to rest.

MANN: Two others, a skier and a snowmobiler, also died Sunday in separate incidents in Colorado. Experts say avalanche conditions are particularly treacherous this winter because of snowfall patterns across much of the West. Drew Hardesty is an avalanche forecaster in Utah.

DREW HARDESTY: In my 21-year career forecasting, I have not seen that where we've issued an avalanche warning for the entire state.

MANN: It's common for 11 or 12 people to die each winter in backcountry avalanches in the U.S. This year, the toll is already 25. One thing setting this season apart, Hardesty says, is the number of avalanches killing more than one skier.

HARDESTY: This year alone, throughout the West and Alaska, there have been multiple-fatality events. Colorado has had one. Alaska had a triple fatality. And now we have just suffered a quadruple fatality that just as easily could have been seven people killed in that avalanche that day.

MANN: According to national statistics compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, more than a third of avalanche deaths so far this year involve these group accidents. Ethan Greene, the center's director, says that's made February deadly in a way he's never seen.

ETHAN GREENE: We don't see multiple multiple-fatality accidents within a short period of time. There's really only a couple of times that we've seen that in the last 60 years.

MANN: Greene says forecasters are working to get the word out that people heading out on skis or snowmobiles need to be extra cautious.

GREENE: It's safe to say that we are having a bad year. It's more of a question of how bad it's going to be.

MANN: Greene says people should check forecasts and have the right training and equipment before visiting areas away from commercial ski areas, where avalanches are possible.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.