Because of rising temperatures resulting in more snowmelt, avalanche season in Wyoming is more dangerous than ever, according to the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
CAIC director Ethan Greene told Cowboy State Daily said the avalanche danger on a given day is determined by weather events occurring over the entire winter, as well as what is happening on a particular day.
“We set ourselves up, building the snowpack over weeks and months, and then what’s happening on a particular day can have a big impact on that buildup,” he said. “Most avalanches occur when we are having some big weather event, like a snowstorm or windstorm. So if you have a big snowstorm rolling in, it’s going to exacerbate what’s happening deeper in the snowpack.”
Fifteen people have been killed in avalanches over the 2021-2022 season, nine of whom have died since the beginning of the 2022. There were 37 avalanche-related deaths during the 2020-2021 season.
Two people have been killed in avalanches in or near Wyoming in the last month.
Jay Norton, 61, a member of the faculty of UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, was skiing in the Game Creek drainage on the western slope of the Tetons near Victor, Idaho, when he and another skier triggered an avalanche about two weeks ago.
A 58-year-old snowmobiler from South Dakota was killed near Encampment earlier this month after he was buried underneath the snow from the avalanche.
Greene said that in the case of the avalanche near Encampment, a relatively dry period in the middle of winter produced a weak layer of snow. But more snow began to fall in February and March, adding more weight on top of an already weak layer of snow.
“That fellow triggered a pretty small avalanche, but it was deep enough and it had enough debris in it that it buried him,” Greene said. “He was under the snow and his friend didn’t see it happen, so by the time his friend came back to get him, he’d already passed.”
Greene said in the majority of avalanche-related deaths, a person becomes buried under the snow and begins to breathe in CO2, not unlike breathing into a paper bag. Other deaths are caused by trauma from the avalanche.
The springtime is a particularly dangerous time for avalanches, due to the rapidly warming temperatures and Greene said this will likely be the case until early May.
He encouraged anyone recreating in areas with potential avalanche dangers to use the website avalanche.org to check for up-to-date weather conditions. As of Monday afternoon, western Wyoming has “considerable” avalanche danger, particularly in the Teton, Togwotee Pass and Grey’s River areas.
He recommended that anyone going to recreate in an area where avalanches are possible take a shovel, a probe pole and an avalanche rescue transceiver.
“You’ll have days where it’s sunny and the powder is fresh and people are focused on having a great day outside,” Greene said. “It’s beautiful, there’s good skiing or snowmobiling to be had. And that’s where they get into trouble.”