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It’s been a ‘lucky’ season for Colorado backcountry avalanches... so far

More than 100 people have been caught in slides, but only two recorded deaths
An avalanche at 11,900 feet on March 6 in Taylor Park in the Elk Mountains buried a snowmobiler. When the snowmobiler's companions dug him from the debris after nine minutes, he was not breathing and had no pulse. After 10 minutes of CPR he regained a pulse and began breathing. He regained consciousness and recovered at the hospital. (Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The past few weeks have been exceptionally busy for the avalanche forecasters and researchers at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The center has filed reports of about 30 people caught in 27 slides, with none of the caught skiers injured or killed. (A CAIC forecaster was caught and partially buried on April 8 but escaped without major injuries.)

This winter the CAIC has recorded more than 5,000 avalanches so far, with 117 people caught, 44 people partially buried, six people fully buried, and more than a dozen people injured in avalanches.

All those numbers are fairly typical for April except this one: Only two people have been killed in avalanches this winter.

In the past 20 years, there has only been one season – 2016-17 when snowfall across the state was below average – when so few backcountry travelers were killed in avalanches by early April. But the season is hardly over so go ahead … we’ll wait while you knock on wood.

That fatality count can change in a blink, warns CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar.

“Just like any year, some people got lucky this winter,” Lazar says, pointing to several avalanches with successful rescues of fully buried skiers by their partners. “Other years, companion rescues can be just as efficient without the same outcome.”

There were more than a few instances that simply “broke in a good way this season,” Lazar says, warning that one or two avalanches this spring can break the other way “and our fatality numbers could look a lot worse.”

Another mark for the lucky side so far this season: The number of backcountry skiers caught in slides in the past few weeks – at least 30 – involved pretty small avalanches that typically do not kill.

As of the second week in April, every river basin in Colorado has above-average snowpack, with the state sitting at 108% of normal for this time. Right about now, snowpacks across the state typically peak and begin to fade.

’Tis the season for backcountry skiers to begin pushing into steeper terrain as snowpacks stabilize and avalanche dangers ebb. Mother Nature is cooperating this spring and snowpacks are less threatening, Lazar said. Which is yet another mark in the lucky column as the 2023-24 winter moves toward one of the least deadly in Colorado since 2016-17.

“This week is kind of exactly how you want to transition into spring,” he said. “The daytime highs are not too hot with really good nighttime freezes. You want to coax this transition, not just flip a switch.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.