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January 23, 2012
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Avalanche danger remains high

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Lance Trujillo has ridden snowmobiles in Eagle County for a long, long, time. He's never seen the snowpack as slide-prone as it is now.

Trujillo is president of the Holy Cross Powder Hounds, the local snowmobile club. He was out in the backcountry over the weekend, and was surprised at what he saw.

"Everything's moving out there," Trujillo said.

Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the snowpack is moving because the base is so unstable, thanks in part to lower-than-average snowfall in the first months of this winter.

"It's very sensitive to natural and human triggers right now," Lazar said.

The center only Monday scaled back its warning for natural slides from "likely" to "possible" on slopes steeper than 30 degrees, while still warning people about human-caused slides on those slopes.

Some normally intrepid backcountry users said Monday they've stayed out of the backcountry so far this season because the snowpack is so slide-prone.

"It's one of the most shallow snowpacks in 40 years," said Chris Anthony, a professional skier who's appeared in numerous Warren Miller films. "The snow on the ground is so unstable that any weight can set it off."

Drew Rouse, a well-known "big mountain" skier, said he's mostly resigned himself to either traveling out of state for big powder or sticking to groomed runs at the resorts.

"I just went with a group to do (backcountry) snow assessments, and it's just not worth it," Anthony said.

While Trujillo went snowmobiling over the weekend, he said he stayed away from steep slopes and stuck to just hilly terrain. And, given the depth of the new snow, Trujillo said beginners should either stuck to groomed trails or head into the powder with an experienced riding partner.

But Gusty Kanakis, another local snowmobile club member, said he hasn't been out yet this season because of conditions.

Mike Duffy is a little different. A longtime avalanche instructor, Duffy taught a class in Silverton over the weekend, and, with a group of snowmobile riders, covered 20 miles or more of trails. But, Duffy said, he saw at least 30 slopes that had slid while he and the class were out.

Duffy is a big believer in preparedness, and said he's been dismayed by how few local skiers have all the gear they need for venturing into the backcountry. And, he added, he runs into a lot of people who think they know more about avalanche danger than they actually do.

Duffy urged anyone who wants to ski the backcountry - including the East Vail Chutes - to take one of the classes he teaches through Colorado Mountain College. And it's the backcountry where most humans are hurt or killed by sliding snow.

Sunday saw two avalanche-related fatalities at state ski areas. Taft Conlin, 13, of Eagle, was killed in an avalanche near Prima Cornice on Vail Mountain, and Christopher Norris, 28, of Evergreen, was killed in slide at Mary Jane at Winter Park.

Duffy said incidents like those are exceedingly rare at ski areas - by far the most avalanche deaths occur in the backcountry, and almost all of those are human-caused.

But, Duffy said, he understands why people seek out the backcountry powder stashes, especially this winter.

"We haven't really had powder days so far this winter," Duffy said. "We've had a two-month delay, and people are eager to go out there. But that leads to trouble."

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 24, 2012 02:49PM Published Jan 23, 2012 09:46PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.