For the week of November 25 thru December 1, 1998  

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Avalanche center opens today

Local avalanche danger deemed high

Express Staff Writer

North American avalanche deaths are on the rise, and the Forest Service Sun Valley Avalanche Center opens today to aid local backcountry enthusiasts pursue adventure more safely.

Four avalanche-related deaths have already occurred across the continent this winter, and officials fear that if the trend continues, this will be the deadliest season ever. Last year witnessed 46 deaths; avalanches killed 35 during the winter of 1996-97; and 29 were killed the season before, according to one of the Ketchum center’s avalanche forecasters Janet Kellam.

Kellam also said that due to the fairly weak layers of early snow toped by the more solid, thick snows of late, higher elevations around Ketchum currently pose a high avalanche hazard. An advisory was issued, in fact, on Monday morning based on this condition, which Kellam referred to as "bricks on potato chips."

In addition to daily avalanche condition postings on the Internet and via telephone, the avalanche center also offers classes in avalanche awareness and identification training.

"Avalanche victims’ avalanche skills are generally not as good as their activity skills," said Kellam. "Ninety percent of all avalanche victims or someone in their party triggers the deadly slide."

And that is unfortunate, she continued, because avalanche conditions are predictable.

On slopes below 25 degrees, said Kellam, avalanches don’t happen. But this does not mean that steep slopes loaded above a moderate pitch can not place the lesser slope in danger.

The majority of avalanches occur on 30 to 45 degree slopes she said. And wind-loaded slopes and cornices pose a very great threat.

Predicting when and where an avalanche will occur is a more complex matter than evaluating slope degree, however. The avalanche center, one in a chain of centers around the West, has weather stations and evaluation sites on Titus Peak, Bald Mountain and at various National Resource Conservation Service sites in the area.

Experts at these sites analyze snow layers, densities and stability. The center also depends heavily on volunteers for back country, on-site observations.

Interested parties can view the Eeb site at, call the daily advisory at 788-1200, ext. 8027 or the observer hotline at ext. 8028.


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