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Avalanche fatalities spike this season

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily TribuneChuck Owens, left, and Bob Reefer, both from Minden, head out for a day of riding in Hope Valley on Saturday morning. Owens said he rides almost every weekend and never without his avalanche beacon.
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Nationwide, the 2007-08 winter season already has been witness to more avalanche deaths than recent years.

While only one avalanche fatality has been reported in the Sierra Nevada this season, the latest snowfall has increased the danger for backcountry enthusiasts.

Thirty-nine people have been killed in North American avalanches so far this season, more fatalities than the entirety of each of the past four years, according to statistics from the WestWide Avalanche Network.



No deaths from avalanches have been recorded in the northern Sierra Nevada so far this season, but within the past 11 days, a hiker was killed in Sequoia National Park and three skiers died in separate avalanches near Mountain High Resort in Southern California.

Some snowfall throughout much of the West in late October and early November, followed by a relatively dry spell and significant snowfall in December and January, has been a major contributor to the deaths nationwide, according to Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center.



“Usually about this time of year every year, there’ll be a portion of the country that has had bad avalanches,” Abromeit said. “This year, it’s kind of been across the board. Virtually every avalanche center from Mammoth to the Canadian boarder has issued avalanche warnings at some point.”

Dense, wet snow falling on top of light, “sugar” snow almost always spells danger, according to the avalanche researcher.

Abromeit compared such a situation with trying to rest a brick on a layer of corn flakes.

Just such a circumstance was noted in Friday’s avalanche forecast from the Sierra Avalanche Center, which listed avalanche danger for its coverage area as “considerable.”

The Sierra Nevada’s typical melt-freeze cycle, which has earned its snowpack the dubious distinction of “Sierra cement,” is a double-edged sword when it comes to creating conditions ripe for an avalanche, Abromeit said.

While heat from the California sun tends to melt fresh snow and contribute to avalanches immediately after a snowstorm, as snow repeatedly melts and freezes, the snowpack tends to stabilize, Abromeit said.

“Typically what happens is, most of (Sierra Nevada) avalanches are either during the storm or in the first 24 to 48 hours after the storms,” Abromeit said. “In the short term, it makes it more dangerous; in the long term, heat stabilizes snowpacks.”

Abromeit recommends people take a avalanche course and carry proper safety equipment when entering backcountry areas.

The knowledge gained from a avalanche course could be especially important in recognizing treacherous areas one wouldn’t typically think of as avalanche-prone, according to South Shore snowmobile enthusiast Pliny Olivier.

Snowmobilers are twice as likely to die in an avalanche because of the amount of terrain they can cover in a single outing, according to Utah Avalanche Center statistics.

“You know, most of the people who will go into the backcountry are aware of avalanches; the thing is, they don’t always recognize the really dangerous areas,” Olivier said.


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