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3 Skiers Killed In Colorado Avalanches As Authorities Warn Of Weak Snowpack

Three skiers died in two avalanches that struck Colorado mountains in recent days, in snow that avalanche experts warn is the most unstable it has been in years.

On Friday, a skier was buried by an avalanche on the northeast end of the Anthracite Range, west of Crested Butte. Two other skiers located the buried skier with a transceiverand pulled him out, but he did not survive.

The next day, in an area west of Silverton,two backcountry skiers were reported missing. First responders searched from a helicopter, and spotted ski tracks and a large avalanche. The skiers' bodies were found in the avalanche debris on Sunday.

"Colorado is the home of weak snow and avalanches are not uncommon. This year is worse," the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said in a statement on Sunday. "Although the avalanche conditions are not unprecedented, they are worse than many people are used to. People are using avalanche-safety strategies that have worked in recent years, but current conditions require additional caution."

According to the Center, 348 avalanches in the state have been reportedso far in December. A snowmobiler in Wyoming's Salt River Range was also killed by an avalanche on Friday.

Ethan Greene, the Center's director, said the mountains had the weakest snowpack since 2012.

"People need to recognize we have unusual conditions and their usual practices may not keep them out of harm's way. As we gain more snow in the coming weeks, avalanches could become even more dangerous. We urge everyone to check the avalanche forecast before you plan your day in the mountains, particularly as we enter the holiday season," he said.

Snow scientists say that climate change plays a role in creating the conditions for extreme avalanches, as Inside Climate News has reported. Among the avalanche-promoting conditions on a warming planet: snowstorms fueled by increased moisture in a warmer atmosphere, warmer temperatures that cause snow to slide and more occurrences of rain on top of snow.

In 2019, Colorado was rocked by major avalanches. "We saw more in the first 10 days of March than we'd typically see in a five-year period," Brian Lazar, a deputy director of the Center, told NPR.

"We're seeing much more of these large and destructive avalanches," he said.

Greene toldColorado Public Radio last year that the March 2019 avalanches destroyed timber, and in some places changed the nature of the terrain. Some of the avalanches ran into occupied structures, which was unusual. And other avalanches slid over highways, leading to extended closures.

For those heading to the backcountry, the avalanche center says the most important thing is to check the avalanche forecast before you go.

"Look at the current avalanche conditions and plan accordingly," the center advises. "Steep slopes where the snow supports your weight are dangerous. Avalanches are easy to trigger. They can break wider than you expect. You can trigger avalanches from low-angle terrain, below or to the side of a steep slope. If you're unsure about the conditions, stay on slopes less than 30 degrees steep that are not connected to steeper terrain."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.