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The quest for a viral post: Social media linked to rise in avalanche fatalities in backcountry terrain

Social media has bled into every different kind of environment across the globe. Mountainous, backcountry terrain is no exception.

Jerry Isaak, a professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, recently found that social media affects adventurers' decision-making out on the terrain.

"I see [my students] taking all these pictures in the back country, and [I wondered] does it have an effect on how they might behave and how they might approach terrain," Isaak said.

Isaak explained that today, people aren't purely being pressured by the people they're surrounded by, but by their online friends and followers as well.

"Social media is more about making connections and about narratives and about understanding our place in communities and how we fit," Isaak said. "It's a different thing than 15 years ago when I had a flip phone."

An avalanche in the Austrian Alps led to the cancellation of the Freeride World Tour Event in February 2015 (Screen grab/instagram.com/gijslecomte)

Part of this pressure can lead to risky and unsafe behavior in the back country.

However, educators on avalanche safety are finding social media to be a potential roadblock when teaching others how to survive on the terrain.

"The older generation, the digital immigrant generation, who aren't fluent in social media... would dismiss younger generations or people that are more connected as simply narcissistic," Isaak said. "That's just one danger."

That kind of danger can be possibly fatal.

According to avalanche.org, 30 people died in avalanche-related accidents in the U.S. during the 2015-2016 season. That's above average; over the course of the last 10 years, 27 people regularly die per year in avalanches in the U.S. Colorado has the highest annual rate of avalanche fatalities.

In the United States' avalanche statistics database, the highest number of avalanche-related deaths happened among backcountry tourers; a total of 251 fatalities occurred from 1950 to 2015.

As Isaak said, the best way to be safe is to establish a mutual understanding between terrain educators and terrain visitors.

"Part of the reason that I present these topics is a lot of the people presenting our avalanche education courses are generally in their 50s," Isaak said.

"So my message for them is, don't write off your students because you're turned off the aesthetic of someone having a smart phone in the backcountry."