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Midseason Concern

A feisty snowpack and a string of incidents sound the safety alarm
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• Check every morning: Sierra Avalanche Center

Do a free online program: Know Before You Go

Read a book: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper

Take your level 1 avalanche course: American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education

Keep learning: National Avalance Center

“We are trying to understand how groups make decisions together. It’s a big deal out in the backcountry,” said David Reichel, an avalanche instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College, to a group of 15 students. “But we don’t have it figured out.”

This question of how human decisions are made and how they lead to accidents, is at the forefront of avalanche and safety discussions, and this year that question is as relevant as ever. A strong first half of the winter has brought amazing conditions, but several high-profile incidents have also put the community on alert.

The snowpack reached last year’s maximum depth before the calendar turned to 2016, and resorts have opened terrain not skiable in years. At time of press, the Tahoe snowpack was at 126 percent of its median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And while the drought is far from over, reservoirs are ticking back toward historical levels. On Feb. 1, Lake Shasta reservoir was recorded at 52 percent of its total capacity, 25 percent under the average.

Enthusiastic Caution

But given a slew of avalanche-related incidents that were concentrated in January, a darker theme has also emerged.

“The fire is burning hotter than it has been in several years and there are simply more people out there these days, with a wider range of skills and experience in all directions,” said Rich Meyer, an avalanche instructor, ski guide, and co-founder of the backcountry advocacy group Tahoe Backcountry Alliance (TBA).

The backcountry demographic has gone from specialized to mainstream, and is increasing every year. The TBA is carrying out a survey on backcountry use with more than 800 respondents so far, and the Sierra Avalanche Center’s (SAC) website has had more than 97,000 users and 453,000 page views since Nov. 1; numbers that represent a 20 percent growth over five years.

Though the higher numbers elicit concern as more people are putting themselves in dangerous areas, they are only one part of the issue. Terrain that used to be for advanced skiers only is now skied regularly.

The popular sidecountry area of Munchkins, accessed from Alpine Meadows, exemplifies this.

“In the late 90s, people would wait at least a few days after new snow to ski that area; now people do it in the middle of a storm,” said Meyer, who has been skiing the local backcountry for 20 years.

A Persistent Problem

The Tahoe snowpack has run the gamut this year since early November when the snow switch turned on. These storms typically dropped between 6 and 10 inches at a time, a relatively low amount compared to the multiple-foot blizzards that are typical of the Sierra. For example, Northstar California Resort reported 20 days with new snowfall in the month of January, but with an average of 5.4 inches per days with snow, according to


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February 14, 2019