Snow avalanches kill more people in the mountain West than any other natural disaster, yet government officials say the system to warn people about the hazard lacks the necessary funds to adequately protect outdoor enthusiasts.
Budget constraints at 17 avalanche forecast centers in locations as far flung as Alaska, New Hampshire and Utah result in fewer advisories during avalanche season, says Doug Abromeit, director of the Idaho-based U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center.
The West Central Montana Avalanche Center in Missoula, for instance, provides weekly, rather than daily warnings. The Utah Avalanche Center in Salt Lake City sometimes curtails avalanche advisories by closing months early in winter.
Abromeit says the avalanche forecast centers employ about 30 people and operate on a $900,000 annual budget. The Forest Service provides more than half of the funds with the rest coming from state and local governments and private donations of cash, goods and services. Black Diamond Equipment Co. hosted a benefit concert for the Utah Avalanche Center last month. "We practically have to hold bake sales to stay afloat," says Greg Johnson, a forecaster with the Bear River Avalanche Information Center in Logan, Utah.
As more people play in snow, avalanches claim more lives. The Forest Service's recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment shows nearly one in four American adults ice climb, ski, ride snowmobiles, hike with snowshoes or participate in similar winter play.
At least two dozen U.S. ski resorts have opened boundaries to allow powder-seekers into backcountry, where crowds and manicured slopes are absent, but the risks are greater, says Craig Dostie, publisher of the backcountry ski magazine Couloir.
Avalanche fatalities increased nearly five-fold from the 1960s to an average of more than 23 per year in the 1990s, government records show. Thirty-five people died in the winter of 2001-2002 -- the worst on record -- and 21 died last winter.
"It's an epidemic," says Bruce Tremper, director of the federal Utah Avalanche Center, which issues advisories for the Salt Lake City area.
About 40% of the deaths are snowmobilers. Fewer than three riders died in avalanches annually before 1993; an average of 12 died in each of the last five years, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Boulder.
More powerful snowmobiles -- consumers purchase about 100,000 of the machines per year -- propel riders deeper into wilderness and abet risky behavior. In one deadly practice, riders compete in "high-marking" contests to see who can climb the steepest, snowiest slopes and the ones most susceptible to slide.
"There's a new generation of snowmobilers with a more cavalier, X Games sort of attitude," says Bruce Greenstein, chairman of the nonprofit Avalanche Fund, which helps support avalanche centers.
"Riders must learn to act responsibly, but even when they do, no amount of money is going to keep everyone safe," says Jim Frankenfeld, a scientist who used to chair the board of directors for the Utah Avalanche Center and who now runs the nonprofit Cyberspace Avalanche Center, a nonprofit organization whose website (www.csac.org) provides links to avalanche safety information.
"We need to emphasize personal responsibility far more than government spending."
People can use proper equipment and train for emergencies, officials recommend. Some recreational users say snowmobile manufacturers could offer buyers safety videos or a rescue beacon.
In Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), sponsored the Federal Land Recreational Visitor Protection Act of 2004, which would allocate $60 million toward avalanche protection on public land. The Senate passed the bill, but it is unlikely to win approval in the House before the end of the year.