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Backcountry remains treacherous

Matt Zalaznick

Waves of avalanches kept the Colorado backcountry perilous Monday, a day after a man was killed by a slide near Buena Vista and a skier from Edwards was nearly buried alive under a cliff just outside the Beaver Creek Mountain ski boundary.

Ski patrollers and other observers warn that recent heavy snows have made many areas outside the boundaries of maintained ski mountains treacherous. Dozens of natural slides have occurred while skiers themselves have trigged many more.

“If you’re going into unfamiliar terrain, or something steep, I would think twice about it,” says Scott Toepfer, an avalanche forecaster



The backcountry can be treacherous and unpredictable, as proved by the local skier buried outside of Beaver Creek Sunday, Mark Weinreich, who had skied the area previously that day before before the snow slide swept him away. He says he and his friend had already made two runs down the Stone Creek drainage above Eagle-Vail before the slide struck.

“You definitely can be unlucky; the moral is to to be prepared,” says Weinreich, who was uninjured and returned to work Monday.



Another backcountry traveler wasn’t so lucky later Sunday night. A man died overnight after his son and a friend dug him out of an avalanche in the backcountry around Mt. Belford, west of Buena Vista, Toepfer says.

The two survivors made it out of the backcountry early Monday morning, he says.

“Ninety-nine percent of avalanche victims either trigged the slide themselves or a member of party triggered it onto them. It’s rare to have an avalanche occur out of the blue and overrun us,” Toepfer says. “We’re the enemy.”



The avalanche threat in many areas is rated as “high” by slide forecasters, Toepfer says.

But because slides are so unpredictable, backcountry travelers should always be equipped with avalanche rescue equipment such as avalanche beacons, probes and shovels, among other crucial gear, Toepfer says.

The rescuers most likely to save the life of a skier buried by an avalanche in the backcountry are the friends he or she is traveling with. In many cases -even in slides near ski areas – by the time friends go for help and a better-trained rescue crew is assembled and reaches the buried skier, there’s a good chance it will be too late, ski patrollers say.

“Inside the ski areas, there are no problems whatsoever,” Beaver Creek Mountain ski patroller Steve Zuckerman says. “In the backcountry, the avalanche danger is rated high, which means natural and triggered releases are possible.

“Natural avalanches and triggered releases,” he adds, “are occurring right now.”

Zuckerman says skiers who are headed into the backcountry, despite the avalanche warnings, should be fully-equipped and definitely want to avoid steeper areas. Backcountry travelers, even in areas just outside the boundary, shouldn’t expect to be rescued by ski patrollers.

“The message is they shouldn’t expect us to respond to them,” Zuckerman says.

Beaver Creek ski patrol does sometimes assist with out-of-bounds rescues when requested by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department.

Zuckerman also says a skier should never go into the backcountry alone. It was Weinreich’s friend Sunday who dug him out and saved his life, Zuckerman says.

“Had this guy been alone, it wouldn’t have had such a good outcome,” he says.

With all the recent snow, Zuckerman recommends staying in bounds.

“When the skiing’s this good in the ski area, you don’t need the added risk,” he says. “Beaver and Vail have just gotten a ton of snow.”

Toepfer says the avalanche danger is likely to remain high.

“It looks like we’re in for a stormy period,” Toepfer says, “which makes me not want to lower any of the hazards.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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