Avalanche in East Vail chutes reported on same day as China Bowl opening
Large, natural slide is a reminder of the sidecountry area's deadly potential
VAIL — No human involvement is suspected in the avalanche which occurred in the East Vail chutes Sunday morning, but the large slide is a reminder of the area’s deadly potential.
Ethan Greene, with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, described Sunday’s slide as a classic avalanche event for that area, hundreds of feet wide with a slab 10 feet deep.
“As far as we know it was a natural avalanche,” Greene said Monday. “We don’t know for sure, but that’s our guess.”
Not long after the slide, the lifts at Vail began taking people to areas of the mountain closer to that slide area with the opening of Orient Express (Lift No. 21) for the season.
The combination of the obvious avalanche danger, along with the ease of access provided by the lift, means it’s probably a good time to warn adventurers of the dangerous and deadly nature of the area, Greene said.
“There is a pretty long history of accidents in that area, and a lot of it is really access,” Greene said. “In some ways, what makes it a more dangerous place than other backcountry areas in Colorado is just that there’s easy access to very serious avalanche terrain.”
For as long as the Orient Express and its sister lift, the Mongolia Platter (No. 22), have operated, backcountry safety advocates have warned skiers about the dangers of the extreme terrain on the other side of the ropes in that area.
Bill Kerig, writing for the Vail Trail in 1988, said the new terrain opening would certainly popularize the area.
“Getting to the chutes is about to become very, very easy, and with that ease will probably come a lot more would-be daredevils,” Kerig wrote.
Kerig, who would later write the book and documentary “The Edge of Never” about the avalanche death of skier Trevor Petersen, referenced the deadly 1986-87 season in his warning to Vail Trail readers in 1988. Four skiers were killed in four separate incidents in sidecountry terrain near Telluride in 1986-87, and four skiers were also killed in an avalanche in Breckenridge’s Peak 7 sidecountry. (Peak 7, in 1987, was an out-of-bounds area which was not managed by ski patrol.) The lone survivor, Tim Kirkland of Australia, told The New York Times his party of five saw the out-of-bounds sign but “skied under the ropes without stopping” because the steep slope looked attractive.
At the time, only one known skier had died in the East Vail chutes. The route to get there, as described by Kerig, required “hiking from Far East Shelter around China Wall to Benchmark.” The Far East Shelter was located near the top of Chair 14, a lift which is in the same location bearing the same name today. With the arrival of the Orient Express and Mongolia Platter in 1988, skiers were deposited “a mere 100-yard hike below Benchmark,” Kerig wrote.
The Vail Ski Patrol warned skiers to avoid the East Vail chutes, and offered backcountry safety classes for anyone considering “out-of-area skiing,” as it was called at the time.
“Most people think they know what they’re doin’ until they make a serious mistake,” a Vail Ski Patrol officer was quoted saying in Kerig’s story. “It’s the old it’ll-never-happen-to-me story.”
Dangerous period upcoming
By Jan. 12, 1993, three more fatalities had occurred in the East Vail chutes. Today, the total people killed is nine.
Greene said while we just saw a large period of avalanche activity in Colorado with the recent storms, and things have calmed down since then, “you can still trigger a large avalanche,” and that is best evidenced by Sunday’s slide in East Vail.
“We’ve seen a couple of involvements in the last few days in the Vail Pass area where people have traveled over slopes multiple times before triggering an avalanche, and that’s what’s so dangerous about this next couple of days,” Greene said Monday.
While the timing of Monday’s large slide in East Vail fits into the first-two-weeks-of-January window, which has proven to be particularly deadly, it’s important to remember the area is always dangerous, Greene said. Last season, a deadly avalanche in the East Vail chutes occurred Feb. 4. Deaths have also occurred in December and March.
“There’s certainly a collection of accidents in (the first two weeks of January), but it’s not all of them,” Greene said.