Vail-area avalanche danger is ’considerable’ right now
Backcountry experts stress caution, education after three die in slides in Colorado over the weekend
Correction: Kreston Rohrig is not a member of Vail Mountain Rescue. This story has been edited to correct that error.
In the wake of three avalanche deaths in Colorado last weekend, experts are urging people to be careful in the backcountry.
Two Durango-area men died Sunday in an avalanche near Ophir Pass in the San Juan Mountains. A Friday slide near Crested Butte claimed the life of a skier.
The three fatalities already represent half of the six recorded avalanche deaths during the entire 2019-20 season.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center Monday listed avalanche danger as “considerable” throughout the Colorado Rockies.
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said relatively new snow is sitting atop a base layer that’s “especially weak.” While there isn’t a lot of snow most places, what there is is currently “really easy to trigger,” Greene said, adding there have already been many human-triggered slides.
Over the past decade, Colorado has averaged 5.9 avalanche fatalities a year, according to data collected by the Avalanche Information Center. But Greene said this year already has been troublesome. From Friday, Dec. 18, to Monday, Dec. 21, there were at least 195 avalanches reported, including 68 that were triggered by humans, according to Greene. Nine people have already been caught in slides, including the three individuals who were killed.
Greene said the current snowpack reminds him and his colleagues of the winter of 2011-2012 in terms of the weakness of the snowpack.
That weak snowpack has combined with a rush of people buying backcountry gear.
Doug Stenclik of Cripple Creek Backcountry, which has locations in Avon, Vail and Aspen, said that company has bindings and boards, but at the moment is completely sold out of avalanche beacons and other equipment.
Stenclik said the people at Cripple Creek do their best to advise customers, especially new ones, about being careful in the backcountry. Taking classes is a good idea, but Stenclik said Cripple Creek has a website, WildSnow.com, to help educate new and more experienced users.
Getting out, but staying close
Stenclik added that people don’t have to head deep into the backcountry to have a good time.
“You can enjoy a long life of ski touring without ever going into avalanche terrain,” Stenclik said. But, he added resort skiing and backcountry skiing are very different activities.
Stenclik said that avalanche terrain often doesn’t look particularly dangerous, comparing the slopes in many places to intermediate slopes at ski resorts.
Kelli Rohrig teaches avalanche classes in Eagle County, and her husband, Kreston, was called out Monday afternoon to investigate an incident near Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County.
Rohrig said she and her husband have been in the backcountry a few times this season. They also taught a recent class near Aspen. The snowpack collapsed on a few students, she said.
Even on flat ground, those collapses can be “unnerving,” she said.
While there are a number of newcomers to backcountry skiing right now, Rohrig said she’s discouraging those new skiers from taking classes this season. Instead, she’s encouraging people to go out with guides and ask plenty of questions.
Rohrig added that right now, sticking to safe courses is a good course of action.
Mayflower Gulch, near Copper Mountain, is becoming increasingly popular. But it’s safer terrain than going into the deep backcountry.
Rohrig said her advice applies even to experienced resort skiers.
Rohrig said the two experiences are a lot like the difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in the ocean.
Being a competent resort skier doesn’t mean someone understands the nuances of skiing the backcountry.
Rohrig this season is participating in a research project in which possible avalanche class participants are asked about their backcountry experience, fitness and their skiing and riding skills.
What the research is showing is a lack of baseline knowledge among relative backcountry beginners.
Even those with experience on the front side of mountains may not have the medical experience they need in case of an emergency miles up a trail.
Getting into trouble also means exposing search and rescue teams to danger. There’s a danger in close personal contact, as a result of the COVID-19 virus. There’s also the danger of sending rescuers out into dangerous terrain, possibly when they’re heading out or back in the dark in frigid conditions.
And, she added, there aren’t a lot of books or online resources for people seeking information and guidance about ski touring, adding that perhaps the best bet is to find and join a Facebook group focused on “getting exercise and having a good time.”
For now, the best time may be in the front country, even if the trails are somewhat crowded.
Sawyer D’Argonne with the Summit Daily News contributed reporting.
Go to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website, http://www.avalanche.state.co.us.
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