Avalanche deaths likely to increase | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Avalanche deaths likely to increase

Gregory Crofton
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune fileAn avalanche in 1998 traps this SUV at Emerald Bay. No one was injured.

In the 1960s climbers and telemark skiers were the ones most often caught in avalanches. These days nearly twice as many people on snowmobiles are getting swept up in giant slabs of fast-moving snow.

“Snowmobilers have just come on like gangbusters,” said Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center in Utah, who spoke Wednesday at Caesars Tahoe at Operation Sierra Storm, a weather conference.

“They cover 100 times the amount of terrain that skiers can in a day. If there is any instability out there they’ll find it,” Tremper said. “The number of fatalities just goes up and up … and will continue to rise. Europe has 150 avalanche fatalities per year; it will probably continue to rise in the U.S. until we get to that level.”

Every year about 25 Americans die in avalanches. In April 2003, Lou Magnotti, the owner of the 7-Eleven on Carson Avenue in South Lake Tahoe, died in an avalanche while snowmobiling in Alpine County off Blue Lakes Road.

Last month,45-year-old Gerilyn Ewing of Reno died after being buried in about 4 feet of snow in the backcountry south of Sugar Bowl, a ski resort off Interstate 80 northwest of Truckee. She was out with a group of skiers in search of a stretch of fresh snow that fell the night before.

A deadly avalanche occurs nearly every year in backcountry around the Lake Tahoe Basin. Still, the avalanche danger in the Sierra is minimal compared to places such as Colorado and Utah. Storms in the Northern Sierra are warmer and deliver wetter snow that bonds the snowpack. Those same storms roll across Nevada’s dry landscape. By the time they reach Utah, they’re ready to deliver dry snow, and layers of dry snow are prone to slide.

“We’ve had record fatalities in Utah this year – seven,” Tremper, 51, said. “It’s just been huge.”

The large number of avalanches is due to heavy snow followed by periods of clear weather. When it’s not snowing, the snowpack starts to weaken and is more likely to form a layer of salt-like crystals that “shatter like panes of glass” and slide downhill with speeds of 60 to 80 mph, according to Tremper.

Jay Trobec, chief meteorologist for KELO-TV, Sioux Falls, S.D., and others attending Operation Sierra Storm watched a video Tremper brought with him that showed avalanche after avalanche caught on tape.

“Are those people being reckless?” asked Trobec, wondering how so many fatal accidents could have been recorded.

“Did you do anything stupid when you were 18?” Tremper said. “Us men just need to go out and slay our dragons.”

Tremper said 93 percent of avalanche victims are male. Beside talking about death and how more and more people are “bumbling” into the backcountry inspired by extreme videos, Tremper also spoke about money and ways weather forecasters might better communicate avalanche danger to the public. Avalanche centers like the one Tremper manages in Utah are barely breaking even.

“There’s just no funding, no money or political will especially in these sort of budget-deficit times we’re in,” said Tremper, noting more people die in the nation each year because of avalanches than hurricanes or earthquakes.

Bob Moore, a winter sports specialist for the Tahoe National Forest, is the avalanche guru for the Central Sierra who publishes a daily report on the Web. He is a one-man show and avalanche work is only part of his job description at the U.S. Forest Service.

“We’ve been running the program out of Truckee last 20 to 25 years on a shoestring,” Moore said. “We’ve realized for a long time that we need to beef it up.”

Moore said an effort is under way to raise about $40,000 annually to hire someone to him with his work. Last winter a nonprofit group called the Sierra Avalanche Center was established to help raise money for avalanche study. Moore seems hopeful that the center will generate enough money for him to hire someone.

“With a full-time avalanche forecaster,” Moore said, “we’d have a better product.”

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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