First big storm heightens avalanche danger

Despite reporting record snowfall, Colorado escaped last winter with only five avalanche-related fatalities.

Although avalanche forecasters will tell you five deaths is five too many, the number might have been a lot worse.

“Last year started at a frantic pace,” recalled Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “It went from ‘all hands on deck’ to quiet, like the door shutting,” he said.

The average number of avalanche-related deaths in Colorado is six per year, Toepfer said.

The 36 avalanche fatalities nationally in 2007-08 set a record.

This past weekend, with some parts of north-central Colorado receiving up to 48 inches of snow and Red Mountain Pass reporting winds up to 100 mph, the avalanche center issued its first “High” danger rating of the year for parts of the Front Range.

Avalanche ratings elsewhere ranged from “considerable” in the mid-Rockies to “moderate” on Grand Mesa.

Even though population is increasing, and there is more interest in backcountry adventure, fatalities have stayed steady over time, likely because it’s much easier today to get avalanche information from a wide variety of sources, Toepfer said.

The daily updates on the Avalanche Center Web site ( are compiled from 15 full-time observers scattered around the state. Other local avalanche centers, such as the Crested Butte Avalanche Center with its daily updates and even private blogs published by experienced backcountry travelers, all contribute to the universal

Since 1950, 221 people have died in avalanches in Colorado, nearly twice the 121 reported by the second-ranked state, Alaska. However, Colorado’s per-capita accident rate is much lower.

Although Toepfer expects the “High” rating to expire today, the statewide weather forecast calls for another storm system to arrive late tonight or early Wednesday.


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