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Colorado Town's Outreach Aims To Save Skiers' Lives


The U.S. is on a pace for a record number of avalanche deaths this winter. More than two dozen people have already died in avalanches. And, of course, there are more months of winter to go. Especially unstable snow conditions have a lot to do with that and the fact that even experienced skiers may need to review their safety skills. As Stephanie Maltarich reports from Colorado, experts are trying hard to reach out to backcountry skiers.

STEPHANIE MALTARICH, BYLINE: Out on skis in the mountains outside the town of Crested Butte, international mountain guide and avalanche educator Jeff Banks says snow slides that kill people don't just happen randomly.

JEFF BANKS: We know that 90% of all avalanche accidents are caused by the human element, meaning we're the problem. We knew the snow was unstable and dangerous, and we still went there anyway.

MALTARICH: And a lot more people are going to dangerous places this winter.

BANKS: That makes it the perfect storm because there's unprecedented backcountry use because of the pandemic.

MALTARICH: In the past, avalanche victims were typically younger men. But in recent years, the average age of people who've died in avalanches has been going up.

SARA BOILEN: We used to think that 20-year-olds were the riskiest.

MALTARICH: Dr. Sara Boilen, a clinical psychologist and avalanche educator based in Whitefish, Mont., researches why older and more experienced backcountry users are dying in greater numbers. She believes one reason is that experienced users are often years out from any formal avalanche education they may have had. And the human brain tends to forget information that it doesn't use.

BOILEN: If I've skied 100 days in the backcountry, I've never had an avalanche and I've never had to dig my friend out, my brain has effectively disposed all the information I have about how to shovel out from an avalanche. And I think one of the things that we could do better is having little moments of tune-ups.

BOILEN: This winter, Crested Butte's nonprofit Avalanche Center started offering a lot more of that. Staffers set up a pop-up tent at a busy trailhead every other Saturday or so.

ZACH KINLER: We're just out here with the Crested Butte Avalanche Center doing some outreach, making sure folks are checking the forecast if they're moving into the backcountry - and here to answer any questions that you guys might have.

MALTARICH: This goes beyond typical passive means of reaching backcountry users, like making forecasts of avalanche risk available on a website. Ian Havlick was hired this year to ramp up outreach after things got busy late last season.

IAN HAVLICK: Spring gave us an idea of what this winter would be like with increased use in the backcountry of all types - of skiers, snowmobilers, snowshoers, everyone.

MALTARICH: In addition to staffing trailhead outreach days, Havlick created a biweekly virtual fireside chat series, avalanche safety classes for local youth and online videos that show avalanche rescue techniques. The center also put up a colorful sign at the entrance of town that shows the current avalanche danger. The efforts seem to be working.

HAVLICK: The overall message has been getting out there. And it's rated high danger today, and there's hardly anyone at the trailhead.

MALTARICH: People who came to the trailhead today were cautious. And local skiers have noticed the uptick in outreach.

LAURA TOMLINSON: You can't miss it, you know, if you get on Facebook.

CAROLINE MCCLEAN: I love the videos. Yeah, they're very informative.

MALTARICH: People from across the country tune in to the fireside chats. And the team reaches hundreds of recreationists at trailheads. Last week, a social media post received 46,000 views, a huge increase from the normal 2,000.

HAVLICK: The feedback we've been getting from the community, it's been overwhelmingly positive.

MALTARICH: Right now, Havlick's position is only funded temporarily. The Avalanche Center's goal is having a permanent outreach program to offer more education and outreach in addition to its daily forecasts. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Maltarich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Maltarich is a freelance audio producer and writer based in Gunnison, Colorado. Her work focuses on the environment, social justice and the outdoors. She is currently a science writer and content producer at CIRES at the University of Colorado, Boulder.