Avalanche kills skier in East Vail Chutes
Ryan Summerlin January 4, 2008
VAIL ” A 27-year-old local skier died in an avalanche in the East Vail backcountry Friday.
The man was identified as Jesse Brigham, an employee of the Arrabelle at Vail Square complex who was originally from Boston.
Brigham was skiing with two other skiers in the East Vail Chutes shortly before noon when the avalanche slid.
All three skiers were wearing avalanche beacons, the Sheriff’s Office said, and Brigham’s two skiing companions were able to find him and begin CPR. Vail Ski Patrol also responded.
Brigham was buried for about 10 to 20 minutes, said Shannon Cordingly of the Sheriff’s Office. The man was pronounced dead shortly thereafter, the Sheriff’s Office said.
The cause of death was asphyxiation, said County Coroner Kara Bettis.
The East Vail Chutes are a popular backcountry skiing area that is outside the boundaries of Vail Mountain but is accessed through the ski area.
As many as 300 people per day ski the chutes, according to estimates from the Forest Service. Skiers get to the chutes by hiking to a backcountry gate above the top of Chair 22, the surface lift above Mongolia Bowl in Vail’s Back Bowls.
The avalanche danger in the Vail-Summit area Friday was moderate above treeline, with pockets of considerable danger, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Experts said they weren’t surprised to see that area slide Friday.
“At times (East Vail) can have some of the best powder skiing you can have in your life,” said Scott Toepfer of the avalanche center. “There are times when it would be the worst day of your life. It’s steep, and it’s avalanche prone.”
The last fatality in the East Vail backcountry was in January, 2001, when Joseph Chonko fell while snowboarding home from work and got caught in a terrain trap in the Water Tank Chute. The last death to involve an avalanche was in March 1996, when Vail resident Kevin Burke was buried in a 1,500-foot slide.
Mike Duffy, a longtime local skier who teaches avalanche classes at Colorado Mountain College, said the snowpack has been unstable this season across Colorado and the West.
“Everything’s pretty ripe,” he said.
A lot of people have a false sense of security about the avalanche danger in East Vail Chutes because it’s so close to the ski area, so many people ski it and there hasn’t been a fatality there in several years, Duffy said.
“A lot of people think of it as an extension of the mountain,” he said. “But it’s a whole different world. … (The death) is kind of a wakeup call for people.”
Avalanche danger has been lessening over the last few days after a windy snowstorm hit the area over the weekend, Toepfer said. But a weak, underlying layer in the snowpack is making for close calls with avalanches across the state, he said.
A snowboarder was caught in an avalanche near Cameron Pass near Fort Collins Dec. 2. He was rescued, but later died of his injuries.
Friday’s Vail fatality was the nation’s 14th avalanche death this season. Eight have been in Washington state.
The hotel at the Arrabelle at Vail Square complex, where Brigham worked, is set to hold its grand opening Saturday.
“The RockResorts family extends its deepest sympathies and thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Jesse Brigham,” said Stan Brown, an executive for the Vail Resorts subsidiary RockResorts, which operates the Arrabelle at Vail Square.
Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.