Western US. Here's what you need to know to stay safeWestern US. Here's what you need to know to stay safe

Winter sports enthusiasts are making their way to ski resorts and remote slopes in anticipation of the extended Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.

A huge winter storm dumped snow on the western U.S., but winter sports fans rushed to ski hills and backcountry slopes in preparation for the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. But when the storm hit, there were dangerous slide conditions in many places, which led to terrible results.

An avalanche hit northern Idaho on Thursday afternoon, putting three people in a very dangerous position. Two of them were safely saved, but unfortunately, the third person is thought to have died. Later that same night, in a different part of the state, the people in two cars that were buried by a landslide were able to get out of the cars safely.

The first avalanche death of the season in the United States was recorded on Wednesday. It happened on difficult slopes at the Palisades Tahoe ski area near Lake Tahoe. Four people were stuck, and sadly, one of them died in the landslide. It was the same spot the next day when we saw a second landslide, fortunately with no known injuries.

Let’s delve into the factors influencing avalanches, understand when and how they occur, and gather some insights on staying safe from these slides. The recipe for avalanche conditions typically involves two elements: a slope inclined at 30 degrees or more and layers of snow.

According to Ben Bernall, an avalanche forecaster at the U.S. Forest Service Panhandle Avalanche Centre, the intricacies of avalanches are linked to the snowpack’s layered structure, which is shaped by varying weather conditions. Picture it like a cake with a solid, cohesive layer beneath, a thinner frosting layer, and perhaps another cake stacked on top, all influenced by the slope’s angle or steep terrain. Additional pressure, whether from wind, rain, heavy snow, or motion, can trigger the shearing off of layers, resulting in a downhill slide.

These slides can manifest as loose snow sluffs or more dangerous snow slabs, where a substantial layer breaks away and descends down the mountainside, often leading to fatalities. Wind-induced avalanches can also occur when a snow cornice forms over a ridge or steep slope, posing a sudden danger to those underneath or on top of it.

Various factors, like movement, rapidly changing weather, or wind, can instigate avalanches. Surprisingly, 90% of incidents causing injuries or fatalities are triggered by the victims or those with them. Therefore, individuals engaging in activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, or snowshoeing in snowy backcountry areas should check avalanche forecasts before venturing out and ensure they carry the necessary safety equipment.

While most ski resorts implement avalanche protocols or mitigation systems, including assessing snowpack stability, some also resort to remote detonations to manually trigger slides, removing precarious snow layers before allowing skiers on the slopes. Contrary to popular belief in cartoons and movies, yelling does not generate the necessary sound waves to trigger avalanches, as clarified by the Sierra Avalanche Centre.

In situations where the snow is very unstable, a very loud noise, like the sound of an explosion nearby, could set off an avalanche.

Based on data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about 28 people die in avalanches every year in the United States. Twenty-nine people died in avalanches in the United States last winter. The victims were winter sports fans who were skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, climbing, and hiking.

In sad news from February of last year, three members of a New York mountain climbing club died in a landslide on a remote peak in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State.

In May, three hikers died in Alaska’s Denali National Park. They were killed in two different events on the same day. One climber set off an avalanche while snowboarding in the backwoods of the park, and the other two were swept away as they got ready to climb Moose’s Tooth. Sad to say, their bodies were never found.

It’s important to remember that most avalanche deaths happen in the woods. Ski areas are safer because the slopes are carefully managed. Crews at ski resorts actively set off smaller, controlled slides when the slopes are empty. This helps make avalanche situations less common in these managed settings.

Ethan Greene, head of the Colorado Avalanche Information Centre, said that only 3% of the 244 avalanche deaths in the U.S. over the last ten years happened in the operating zones of ski slopes. Unfortunately, because Mother Nature is so uncertain in complicated mountain settings, it is still not possible to completely remove the risk of avalanches.

Trying to get away from avalanches is not a good idea. A dry slab avalanche can reach speeds of up to 129 kph (80 mph) in a matter of seconds. Wet avalanches, on the other hand, usually move at about 20 mph (32 kph). In 2009, Usain Bolt set a new record for the fastest 100-meter dash time on a flat track, which was just under 28 mph (45 kph). Most people who die in avalanches are on the hill when they happen.

A safer option is to stay away from avalanches altogether. Avalanche predictions can be found at www.avalanche.org or at area avalanche centres. When going outside, it’s important to use the buddy system, know how to give first aid in the woods, and bring the right gear. This gear has an avalanche device or tracker for reporting position, a shovel for checking the snowpack and helping people in need, and a foldable pole for digging through the snow to find people who are buried.

Due to the bad snow conditions, Boise County Sheriff Scott Turner says that people in the wilderness of central Idaho should stay at lower levels and away from steep hills this weekend. If you get stuck in a landslide, one way to stay alive is to cup your hands together over your mouth and nose to make a small air pocket. Using this method along with warm breath to melt the snow may give you a chance to slowly make room to breathe and finally help you get away.


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