Five died in Colorado avalanches | VailDaily.com
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Five died in Colorado avalanches

Bob Berwyn
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Preston Utley/Daily file photoTwo skiers died eight days apart in avalanches in the East Vail Chutes, just outside Vail Mountain's boundaries, in January.
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SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” The avalanche season started early this year.

A close call mid-November in Clear Creek County was quickly followed by first death of the season, Dec. 2 in the backcountry at Cameron Pass, west of Fort Collins. A snowboarder was buried, recovered but later died of injuries sustained in the slide.

Altogether, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center received reports on 67 avalanches. Five people were killed and several others were buried at least partially. But the center’s forecasters said the reports only reflect a fraction of the number of avalanches. Many close calls still go unreported.

“It was a slow start, then we were going gangbusters for quite a while,” said forecaster Spencer Logan.

“For a while, it looked like we were on a record pace, nationally, for avalanche deaths,” Logan said.

As winter settled in for real, heavy snows across much of the region led to a spate of accidents, even along the West Coast where the snowpack is generally more stable than in the Rockies.

For a time, local search and rescue experts were on pins and needles, expecting the worst as storm after storm rolled through the area, watching as new snow and wind built a complex and tricky snowpack.

About two weeks after the first death in the Front Range, a tele skier took a frightening ride in the backcountry east of Vail. His detailed account of the slide is online at the avalanche center Web site.

Together with repeated avalanche warnings and reports of natural and triggered slides in the Vail and Summit counties, the close call should have served as a warning. But on Jan. 4, a snowboarder died in the East Vail chutes when a large hard slab ripped down a steep slope in a popular powder stash outside the ski area boundary.

A snowmobiler was critically injured two days later, Jan. 6, near Cottonwood Pass, as the brittle mid-winter snowpack failed once again.

The accidents came in quick succession: A dog died in a Jan. 8 slide on Dave’s Wave, near Loveland Pass, and two days later a climber was killed on Little Bear Peak in the Sangre de Cristos, the first-ever recreational avalanche fatality reported from that range.

And when another skier died Jan. 12 in the East Vail Chutes, local search and rescue officials huddled to plan for the worst. But persistent storms deposited a thick layer of snow, eventually locking weak layers deep down in the pack. The number of accidents tapered off as the snowpack stabilized.

The last fatality of the season so far was Feb. 1, as a snowmobiler was trapped and killed by a slide in the northern Flat Tops, near Rifle.

In the last couple of seasons, the avalanche center has added maps and photos to the accident reports posted online.

“We haven’t been able to post as detailed reports as we would like,” Logan said. “We’ll correct that over the summer.”

Even if some of the reports are incomplete, others are gripping narratives of how people get into trouble in avalanche terrain. For Summit County backcountry skiers, the report on the Jan. 8 slide on Dave’s Wave is especially instructive.

Reporting to the center anonymously, two long-time local skiers detailed the decision-making process that ultimately led them to a terrain trap, where a dog was buried and killed by a slide.

“Dogs should never wear a beacon,” Logan said. “Even rescue dogs, working in the field in dangerous areas, don’t wear them.”

The risk is just too high that searchers will hone in on the wrong signal if people are also buried, Logan said. The only exception would be to give a dog an older beacon operating on a different frequency to avoid confusion, he added.

Although the avalanche center is not issuing avalanche hazard ratings any longer, forecasters will update statewide weather discussions and issue special bulletins through the end of May.

The bulletins, along with general spring avalanche information, are online at http://avalanche.state.co.us. The telephone hotline is also updated Sunday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, (970) 331-5996.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Logan said of the spring backcountry season. “The snowpack is setting up nicely and so many lines are filled in.”

The key to safe spring backcountry mountaineering is timing. An early start is a must, and skiers, climbers and boarders should be off the mountain before the snow turns gloppy.

Wet snow slides are always a concern, especially after a snowy winter, said Arapahoe Basin ski patroller Brandon Woolley.

“It’s like a Slurpee. It sits and sits and sits … and then all of a sudden it slides down and hits you in the face,” Woolley said.

The spring snowpack can behave exactly like that, seemingly completely stable until it melts to the point that it can’t hold its own weight, he said.

Cornices can also easily fail as water percolates through the snow, and this year’s bumper crop of frozen snow waves are especially large and require extra caution, forecasters said.

“If you’re punching through the surface, it’s too late in the day,” said Snook “I’d like to see people thinking about an exit strategy. What are you going to do if you’re in a slide zone and it starts to go.”

This very end of a backcountry trek can be the most dangerous time, when lower-elevation and less-steep slopes turn to slush long before the upper snowfields do.

“I’d like to see people timing their descents carefully,” said Woolley. “If you can squeeze water out of a snowball, look out.”

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.


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