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Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho, called the avalanche fatalities and close calls “unprecedented” in developed ski areas. “We have never seen a series of incidents (like those that occurred) inbounds in the last couple of weeks,” he told the Jackson Hole News & Guide in late December.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy year,” he added.

In the case of the three fatalities, ski patrollers had used hand-thrown charges or howitzers on the slopes that ultimately failed, but without success. The slopes had all been skied by others before they let loose.

“Snow is an extremely complicated medium,” Abromeit told the newspaper. “Ski patrols can reduce the risk to almost zero, but they can’t eliminate it.”

“The ski patrollers have been out there pounding it, trying to make it safe,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a wake-up call, because I don’t think anybody has been asleep. These were an extraordinary string of events.”

Abromeit said “many hours” will be spent trying to sort out what happened. “It may just be coincidence, or there may be some trend that we can learn from all this. When you think of the millions of people that visit ski areas each year, the odds of getting caught in an avalanche are pretty miniscule.”

But the potential for an avalanche that partially buried five ski patrollers at the on-mountain Bridge Restaurant at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was well-known. One of the patrollers was buried to his neck; he was dug out by Jerry Blann, president of the resort.

The slide also tore the railing and glass shields off the restaurant deck, burst through the doors and windows, and piled snow eight feet deep inside. Outside the building, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide , the debris was up to 30 feet high.

Another major slide had occurred in the same area in 1986, after storms left 117 inches of snow in 11 days. Later, in 1998, when the restaurant was being considered, the Forest Service predicted the restaurant building would stand a 22 per cent chance of being hit by an avalanche of the same severity during the building’s projected 25-year design life. Art Mears, an avalanche expert from Gunnison, Colo., had made several suggestions to mitigate avalanche danger to the restaurant, including construction of a major deflection berm. But resort officials, say the newspaper, rejected the berm, saying it would be an eyesore and create environmental problems.