VAIL - The sidecountry skiing arena of East Vail was once a secret powder stash for area powder hounds as recently as 10 to 15 years ago, but the allure of powder and backcountry terrain has made the dangers in East Vail a reality for a much larger group of people - a group that continues to grow year after year.
There were at least three avalanches in East Vail this week alone - three that the Colorado Avalanche Information Center knows about, all in Mushroom Bowl, and several more that regular East Vail skiers and snowboarders know about, too.
Scott Toepfer, a forecaster at the avalanche center, knows the dangers that lurk in East Vail and knows the results of avalanches back there will inevitably involve deaths. This week, skiers were lucky - if you can consider broken ribs, a broken femur and collapsed lungs lucky.
"East Vail is one of those places; it's inevitably a place where multiple fatalities (will occur) - it's high on our list of where this is going to happen," Toepfer said.
East Vail is such a concern because it is a true backcountry experience, yet it's practically served by the chairlifts at Vail Mountain. A short hike to the east of Vail's boundaries and skiers and snowboarders - many of whom show up unprepared and uneducated - can find deep snow and steep terrain. Many live for it - and some also will die for it.
The snowpack around the entire state of Colorado has proved to be one of the most dangerous in recent memory. The snow that fell early in the season, followed by a period of little to no snowfall, became rotten or "sugary." The result is a weak foundation for the snowpack that has sometimes even fooled expert backcountry skiers.
One East Vail skier who has been a regular there for more than 15 years said it's simply a bad year. He did not want to be identified for this article but is a savvy backcountry skier.
"It's the worst it's ever been," he said. "Guys who have been doing it 20 to 30 years are seeing stuff that contradicts, that goes against everything you thought you knew. Don't trust anything."
Around mid-January is when the avalanche cycles started really picking up because of storms that dropped enough snow to stress the weak snowpack. That's when Toepfer said avalanche danger really started to ramp up.
And because the weak underlayers are so widespread, the avalanche danger has become a big problem across all of Colorado, not just a few concentrated areas, he said.
"I probably see it getting worse before it gets better," Toepfer said. "Going into Monday it gets windy, which will exacerbate the problem."
The human element is what Toepfer said makes this year so tough. Everyone remembers how incredible last winter's snow was, even though last winter brought dangerous avalanche conditions, he said. But with the light snowfall this winter, people are "bummed without that fix again."
"(When the snow) comes back, it's pretty hard to put the breaks on," Toepfer said. "But there are a lot of things you can do to minimize your risk."
Toepfer said he's not in the business of telling people whether they should or shouldn't go into the backcountry, but he is in the business of putting out information that helps people make informed decisions. He wants people to just reduce their risks of danger.
"If you just aren't comfortable or able, then it's probably time to back off a little bit," Toepfer said. "Given what's been going on around the Vail area, it's time to probably practice a little restraint."
But for guys like Martin Schmidt, who has been skiing East Vail regularly for 14 years and recently started a website about the conditions there called Eastvailinstitute.com, said there is definitely an advantage of being out there every day and seeing the changing conditions first-hand. He also calls being out there, knowing the dangers that exist, a personal choice.
"Experience doesn't guarantee anything," Schmidt said. "I've definitely had some close calls, have put myself in (dangerous) situations. ... I don't want to encourage anyone to go out there."
Toepfer said people have to be educated, prepared, have the right tools and know how to use them. People also need to partner up, and choose their partners wisely. Safety is especially an issue in East Vail, a place that is so accessible for so many people, because with such high numbers of skiers and snowboarders heading back there, there are bound to be people who make conditions more dangerous for others.
"Even the people who are prepared are put at risk by the unprepared people," Toepfer said. "Everyone knows about East Vail - it can be as good as it gets, but it can also be as deadly as it gets."
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.