Death by avalanche

What are your chances of being killed in an avalanche at an Eastern ski resort?

Not very likely, according to national avalanche accident statistics.

But after hearing the news of three skiers being killed in an avalanche in Washington State on Sunday, it got some skiers and snowboarders thinking: can it happen to them?

In the East, one of the most likely spot to encounter an avalanche is in the backcountry of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. In fact, there is the Mount Washington Avalanche Center that offers warnings and and advisories.

This photo from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center shows the snowfields off of Mount Washington. The photo was taken Thursday. The White Mountains is one areas of the East where you can encounter an avalanche.

In its latest report for Tuckerman Ravine in the Whites: “The Sluice, Lip, Center Bowl, and Chute have Moderate avalanche danger. Natural avalanches are unlikely and human triggered avalanches are possible.”

Tuckerman Ravine can be a deadly place if you are not prepared and don’t heed warnings. From late March to often June, the area is hallowed ground for spring skiers who make an annual spring pilgrimage to Tuck’s. The bowl at Tucks collects the snow that blows off Mount Washington that can reach depths of 75 feet.

The ultimate challenge is going off the headwall. Other options are skiing half the headwall or skiing in the chutes like Hillman’s Highway. The biggest thrill, at least for me, was skiing from the top of Mount Washington, into the snowfields.

Mark Moore, an avalanche meteorologist and director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, got it right Monday when he talked about the three skiers killed in an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade Mountains on Sunday.

Moore told the Associated Press, “The snow doesn’t really care how experienced you are. It’s not keeping track of experience level. Once you’re in an avalanche, it has you at its mercy.”

The three killed at the Stevens Pass Ski resort were all expert skiers, had emergency beacons, shovels, avalanche recovery probes and knew the backcountry. One survivor, Elyse Saugstad, used had an air bag that kept her at the top of the avalanche.

But they took a risk because there was a high avalanche warning in the area.

“There are all of these technological things that will help us, but they’re not a talisman that you can wave at the snowpack,” Moore told the AP. “You can’t wave your beacon or your air bag at the snowpack. It’s not going to make you safe. It’s going to help you when get in trouble.”

In the East, avalanches are not as common as they out out West with deeper snow and more rugged terrain. Factors like an unstable snowpack, changes in temperature, wind, weather and the steepness of the slope can all lead to an avalanche.

Unlike the East, western areas also have wide back country bowls.

It’s no surprise that Western states have the highest avalanche deaths; Colorado alone accounting for about a third of the 25 people killed each year.

Nearly all the avalanche  deaths at ski resorts happen in the back country, not on established and patrolled trails at a ski resort.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 89 percent of victims killed in avalanches are men in their twenties. And about 75 percent are experienced back country people.

So far, 17 people have been killed in avalanches in the U.S. this year.  The center keeps a detailed list of all the deaths here.

In the East, the most recent death by an avalanche happened in the 2008-09 season, when a climber was killed in Huntington Ravine in … the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I highly recommend hiking and skiing at Tuckerman’s, but you’d be a fool not to heed the advice of the warnings of rangers and avalanche experts.

It could save your life.

Jim Shay