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Avalanche center needs data on Colorado, Vail Valley

Bob Berwyn
bberwyn@summitdailynews.com
Vail Valley, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” More people are venturing into the backcountry in Colorado and the Vail Valley, but a drop in the number of reports about non-fatal avalanche accidents is leaving gaps in the records of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“We’re losing some important pieces of information here,” said Ethan Greene, director of the center. ” … What we have is good data on when people die in avalanches, but we don’t have as much information on when people get in avalanches and don’t die.”

Independently of the avalanche center, researchers like Ian McCammon, whose work is chronicled on http://www.snowpit.com, use the statistics to “tease out” useful information that helps other people avoid avalanche hazards.



“It’s a positive-feedback loop,” Greene said.

McCammon uses the data to try and understand how group dynamics and other human behaviors figure into the avalanche equation. Having information about non-fatal incidents helps round out that picture, according to Greene.



“I think it hurts us,” said Dale Atkins, a former forecaster who helped keep track of long-term statistics for the center. A steady decline in the number of reports on non-fatal accidents has been evident for several decades, he said.

“Having more information helps us predict the hazards … it can help people have more fun in the backcountry,” Atkins said.

Atkins said the formerly tight backcountry community has expanded to the point that there is simply a smaller percentage of people interested in avalanches purely for the sake of snow science.



Instead, the interest has more to do with self-preservation these days.

According to Greene, some people might hesitate to report an avalanche incident because they think they’ll be singled out for their mistakes. But that’s not the case.

“We absolutely respect their privacy … We have no desire to drag peoples’ name through the mud,” Greene said, pointing to the center’s track record of reporting on avalanche accidents without making judgments.

Avalanche forecasters won’t give away the locations of any “secret” powder stashes, he said.

“If you get caught, you probably made a mistake, but it’s not something to be ashamed of,” Greene said, explaining that the information can help other people avoid the same mistake.

Greene encourages backcountry travelers to report any and all avalanches.

“Sometimes people say they don’t report something because they think we already know about it. I’d rather hear about the same slide 10 times than not hear about it at all,” he said.

Reporting on naturally running avalanches is also important for the center, even if no people are involved in the slide, Greene said.

What the center needs is specific information, including the date and time of day and the location. GPS coordinates are good, and a topo map with a marked location works as well, Greene said.

Elevation, aspect and slope angle are also key pieces of data that help forecasters understand the snowpack and forecast the danger.

“We’d like to know whether the slide was triggered during an ascent, a run down the slope or even remotely,” Greene said.

The dimensions of the slide and the running surface are also important, and photos of the terrain and the slide itself are also valuable, he added.

Sustained snowfall and winds in the Summit County and Vail region have built tender slabs of snow sitting on an unstable base and the avalanche center says backcountry travelers risk triggering slides on steeper slopes near and above treeline.

The danger near, above and even below treeline is rated as “considerable,” meaning that human-triggered slides are probable, while natural releases are possible.

Natural avalanches recently have been reported from Vail and Fremont passes on steep east and northeast facing slopes, running on mid-pack facet and ice crusts that formed in the past few weeks.

A skier triggered a remote release between the two passes on a south slope at about 12,000-feet elevation.

According to a recent bulletin from the avalanche center, a natural avalanche cycle is winding down but a human-triggered cycle is “still going strong.”

With more snow and wind expected in coming days, the risk of slides won’t diminish significantly anytime soon.

Check in with the center at http://avalanche.state.co.us/ or call the local hotline at (970) 668-0600 for the latest updates.


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