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December 18, 2012
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Vail-area backcountry avalanche danger is high

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - New snow has people itching to hit the slopes, on both ski resorts and in the backcountry. But those backcountry slopes are prone to avalanches.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center's Dec. 18 report showed "high" avalanche danger along the western spine of the Rockies from the north end of the state to the south. New snow this week has fallen on old, sun-crusted snow, which makes slides likely on slopes of 30 degrees or more.

With that in mind, a couple of longtime backcountry skiers said it's probably a good idea to stay off that new snow for a while.

Donny Shefchik, a guide with Paragon Guides, first ventured into the backcountry in the early 1980s. He was on Vail Pass a few days ago, before the latest snow hit, and said what little snow there was on the ground showed signs of becoming slide-prone.

"We didn't see any natural slides, but everywhere we went snow was collapsing from the skiers' weight," Shefchik said.

Shefchik said skiers' weight can often trigger slides, and is a crucial part of avalanche awareness. That said, though, Darryl Bangert of Sage Outdoor Adventures said virtually every slide in a given winter happens naturally.

Right now that's especially true of east- and north-facing slopes, Bangert said.

"There are big pockets of instability out there," he said.

Bangert, who took his first avalanche class in 1976, said anyone who frequents the backcountry needs to pay close attention to conditions over the course of a season, from current snow and weather conditions to wind patterns to what's happening at different elevations. There's a lot to know, but knowledge is important to avoid what Shefchik called "Oh, wow!" moments in the field.

Right now, there's a lot of potential for those moments, both because of the instability of the snowpack and the fact there's still relatively little snow in the backcountry. Rocks, trees and stumps can be as big a danger as being buried, Shefchik said.

At the moment, people leading tours are sticking to relatively flat areas, something they recommend to others.

"There's no place that I would go to ski a 30-degree slope, except maybe a small one just to check it out," Shefchik said. "In fact, if I did go out, I wouldn't go looking for turns; I'd just maybe do some touring. I won't put myself where I can have an 'oh wow!' moment."

Shefchik said the best advice he has is to just let backcountry conditions settle out a bit, letting slopes slide naturally and allowing more snow to build up and stabilize what's already on the ground.

"That instability will release, but sometimes it will stay for weeks," Bangert said. "Eventually, it will bond."


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The VailDaily Updated Dec 18, 2012 10:41PM Published Dec 18, 2012 10:40PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.