Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on June 25, 2009 4:56 pm

For TV news outlets, the Avalanche is the winter version of the summer shark attack! Tales of fortunate survivors are broadcast on Good Morning America, accompanied by sensationalistic, monster images of crashing tidal waves of snow. Tragically, this winter there have been far too many stories about fellow mountain enthusiasts who did not survive their encounter. To illustrate, typically the state of Washington has two avalanche deaths per year. This year the tally has already reached nine. I, myself, will never forget the sounds of shouted instructions while probing for avalanche victims. A death cloud hung in the air. Equipped with long metal poles, our regimented, military-style line-up slowly canvassed the mountain. “Prod left!… Prod center!… Prod right!… Step up!” Avalanches are deadly scary.

Out West, this has been the “year of the avalanche”, and for those reclusives who track and study avalanches, the spotlight is theirs. Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, just outside of Seattle, is a scientist of the snow, looking for patterns in the unpredictable. “It is exciting, frustrating, busy and scary all at the same time,” Baugher hurriedly commented, before rushing off to investigate a nearby slide. But what’s different about this year? Why so many avalanches? Baugher explains, “It’s the combination of a lot of weak snow, followed by a little bit of a lag time before a period of sustained snow storms.” Translation? This year, an early November storm sat, as the base snow layer, until a series of storms in December. Without receiving a fresh cover from Mother Nature, that initial base layer, says Baugher, “actually changes and becomes weaker over time. It becomes like sugar, and if you picture sugar, picking it up and trying to compact it into a snowball, you can’t. It’s just loose grains. Then once the onslaught of December storms came, building a heavy load over sugar that’s weak, well, it’s like peanut butter over jam. It’s mechanically unstable.” Even so, these conditions are not highly unusual, according to Baugher, and answers have been hard to come by. “There are lots of theories out there. Is it more people out hiking the back country? More people going into these places? But, that’s been happening over time, so can it be purely just coincidence? Is it fat skis and the more aggressive skiing common today? I’m studying it, looking at it. Looking for patterns to see what we can learn from this.”

For ski enthusiasts, despite recent occurrences to the contrary, the risk of coming into contact with an avalanche at their favorite resort is, according to Baugher, “less than one in a million.” So, yes, for most of us, the closest contact we’ll have with an avalanche is the television. But, to quote Shakespeare, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Accordingly, The Ski Channel offers up ten places off-piste where avalanches do happen, and dispenses a little avalanche education on the way.

Zeke Piestrup ( More Posts)

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