10 killed in Western avalanches in 10 days -- deadliest January in decades

DENVER (AP) — Ten people have died in avalanches across the West in the last 10 days, making this month the deadliest January for slides in nearly 20 years.

Eleven people have died in slides throughout the whole month, including four over the weekend, for a total of 14 so far this snow season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks slides across the country.

On Sunday, one person was killed and another was injured in Washington in an avalanche near the Mount Baker ski area and two skiers died in Wyoming after being caught in a slide just outside the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in a popular place for out-of-bounds skiing. A third skier who was trapped survived.

In Montana on Saturday, one of three snowmobilers riding in the Whitefish Mountains near Olney was killed after being buried.

The most common types of avalanches and reasons for them differ somewhat between the Pacific Northwest, where larger snow storms followed by rain are common, and the Rockies, where weak layers of snow hardened by cold and dry weather can give out deep within the snowpack. However, experts say that seemingly small changes in conditions can make a big difference in risk and that a long period without fatalities can give backcountry users a false sense of security.

January is often a time when those weak layers can cause problems in the Rockies. In parts of Colorado, where two people have died in avalanches in different parts of the state this month, the top layer of snow sat around for a while in dry, cold weather becoming sugary and unable to adhere with the snow that eventually fell on top, said Spencer Logan, a forecaster with the state's avalanche center.

"It's the kind of recipe that's just waiting for someone to find the wrong spot and trigger an avalanche," said Logan, who said more people have died in slides so far this January since January 1997.

The details of the Washington slide are still being investigated but it appears that two people who were either snowboarding or skiing were buried in a small slide when a larger slide was somehow triggered, said Benj Wadsworth, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Information Center.

Conditions were actually worse in Washington's Cascade mountains last week after rain falling on top of the snowpack triggered a lot of avalanches and flushed out a lot weak snow. Since then, however, Wadsworth said the top of the snowpack got crusty as temperatures dropped and then several inches of snow fell on top of that. He said it's possible that crusty layer could have given out and caused the fatal slide.