Adventurers flirt with death
TAHOE CITY — A large avalanche can run 6 to 10 feet deep, thousands of feet wide and drop at a rate of more than 100 mph.
In the U.S. about 100,000 avalanches occur each year. On average, they leave 27 people dead.
A skier or a snowmobiler is often what triggers a slab of snow to fracture and bury people alive. Some are able to escape their cement-like grave, but most don’t.
Avalanches around the Lake Tahoe Basin claim lives nearly every year. Danger is low right now, but just last month an avalanche killed a 25-year-old man who was skiing out-of-bounds near Mt. Rose.
In the Sierra Nevada, avalanche danger is at its peak during or just after a storm. Peril is also elevated during stretches of higher temperatures after a snowfall, said Knox Williams, director at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, who spoke Wednesday at the Resort at Squaw Creek for Operation Sierra Storm, an annual weather conference.
In March 1982, Alpine Meadows experienced an avalanche that killed seven people. It remains the most deadly avalanche in U.S. history. The mountain was closed when the snow broke loose. Most killed were employees.
One survivor, a woman, was trapped in a building destroyed by the avalanche for five days. She had to have both feet amputated. She holds the distinction of having survived in the snow longer than anyone else, Williams said.
Before the avalanche, on the same day, patrollers shot an explosive into the area where the avalanche occurred. The blast didn’t create a slide, but snow in the same area barreled down the mountain about six hours later. Whether the explosive caused the slide became an issue in court that was never resolved, Williams said.
Compared to other natural disasters, avalanches are not the most dangerous. On average, floods cause 88 deaths a year, tornadoes kill 57, lightning strikes claim 52 people and hurricanes kill 15.
Starting in the 1990s, however, statistics show a large increase in the number of people killed in avalanches. Virtually all the deaths occur in the backcountry.
“The victims are actually going out to where avalanches are,” Williams said. “Avalanches are not seeking them out.”
Snowmobilers are the recreation group most prone to avalanches, according to Williams. The No. 1 way backcountry trekkers can protect themselves is to know the degree of the slope they are on. Slopes that sit at 30 to 45 degrees are most likely to experience an avalanche, especially if it’s storming out. Wind can also increase avalanche danger.
“Steeper slopes tend to slough off and not to build to slab proportions,” Williams said.
Another good tip, especially in the Sierra, is to wait several days after a storm before going into the backcountry.
“It gives the snow a chance to settle and gain strength,” Williams said. “If you can wait a couple of days, you can still get good powder skiing on a northern facing slope.”
Be careful while cleaning snow from a roof, too, Williams said. In 1982, at Vail, a woman about to host a dinner party took a rake to her roof. Guests arrived and found her dead, her foot sticking out of a pile of snow.
— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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