Thursday, November 17, 2011


Avalanches are a natural phenomenon.  They have been recorded as far back as 192 BC, when Hannibal crossed the Alps.  At one time, it was thought that avalanches were caused by evil witches living in the villages below.  These witches were often burned at the stake after a destructive avalanche. 

The whole key to avalanches is gravity.  Without gravity, there would be no avalanches.  Every flake of snow and every piece of rock has but one wish...  to succumb to gravity and fall to a lower point. It has been estimated that 1 million avalanches occur worldwide each year.  Most of these occur in the Alps in Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy.  In the United States, 100,000 occur annually. 
The worst recorded avalanche in the U.S. occurred in 1910 in Wellington, Washington and left 96 dead with 22 survivors.  The worst known in the world occurred in Yungay, Peru and left 20,000 dead.  This avalanche was measured to be 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and displaced 3 million cubic yards of snow.  3 million cubic yards of snow...  That's enough snow to fill a 200 story building the size of a football field. 

More than 180 people are caught in avalanches each year in the United States.  Of these, 90 are partly or completely buried, 29 are injured and an average of 28 are killed.  Over 200 people die worldwide each year.  These statistics are based on reported burials...  it is safe to assume that many more burials occur than are actually reported. 

From 1950 to 2001, avalanches in the United States killed 491 people. Recreationalists accounted for the vast majority of avalanche fatalities, with climbers, ski tourers, lift skiers, and snowmachiners comprising most of the recreational deaths. The majority of the lift skiers were killed while skiing out of bounds or in closed sections of the ski area. 100,000 avalanches occur each year in the United States.

When looking at avalanche fatalities, one cannot overstate the importance of the human element. In fact, 90% of the time, avalanche victims are killed in avalanches that they themselves trigger.  In other words, the avalanche would not have occurred if they had not been on the slope at that moment. 

Finally, statistics say that 61% of all avalanche deaths occur during the months of January, February and March. 

Over the next few weeks the MRA Blog will go deeper into the science behind what has been appropriately called "White Death." 

For more information on avalanche safety check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education program @ as well as our Backcountry Skiing & Riding Safety Video  

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

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