In the past year (1995-1996), backcountry recreation resulted in 33 avalanche fatalities in the the Western US. Given the relatively small number of backcountry users, this means the risk must be quite large. The purpose of this page is to estimate that risk.

To make such a calculation, assumptions on the raw numbers involved are needed. This calculation is no different, and offers only a crude estimate of the average deaths per skier days for the Wasatch Mtns in Utah. Bear in mind that most of the Wasatch backcountry skiers are reasonably well informed about the dangers, and that most of the avalanches here are soft slabs not hard slabs (i.e. easier to predict and less dangerous if you go for a ride). Therefore, this estimate may be a bit optimistic to apply to all avalanche terrain.

There are roughly 2 b.c. skier deaths a year here. Then assuming that there are 100 days per year where a slide is possible and that a slide is equally likely on all days (obviously not true, but this is a crude estimate), and that on any day there are 200 b.c. skiers in the mountains (also probably within the ballpark). Then the estimate is

The assumptions made in this estimate are not always accurate. For example, some days are more dangerous than others. Also the estimate is far too low for an expert alpine skier that ventures into the backcountry with no avalanche awareness, and far too high for a recreational skier that does not ski on or below avalanche prone slopes.

Shortly after the deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono in the December of 1997 and January of 1998, there was a flurry of discussion about the accidental death rate at ski areas on numerous web discussion groups. Several sources were cited, and they all pointed to the same basic numbers for the 1995-96 ski season:

52 million skier days were recorded
36 accidental deaths were recorded
Chance of accidental death: 1 in 1.4 million skier days

Thus the risk of death while skiing in a ski area is 100 times less than skiing in the backcountry. In area skiing involves other accidents and hazards, but the risk of death is insignificant.

During these same discussions, there was a significant interest in the use of helmets while skiing. Using a bicycle safety institutes data, the head and neck injury rate was 1 injury per 8000 skier days. This risk is signifcantly higher than the accidental death rate.