Spring snowslides subject of Forest Service review
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Ski patrollers will have more power to close slopes they suspect could be avalanche prone, following from a Forest Service review done in the wake of an avalanche death at Arapahoe Basin last season.
The review has resulted in some changes to snow safety plans at ski areas in the region ” especially for conditions often seen in the springtime.
“It probably tightens up operations, but won’t be noticeable to skiers,” said Cal Wettstein, district ranger for the agency’s Holy Cross unit in Eagle County.
The review came after an unexpected inbounds wet snow avalanche killed a skier at Arapahoe Basin last May. Regional Forester Rick Cables directed snow rangers to review snow safety procedures.
“Everyone’s eyes in the industry were opened by this,” said Don Dressler, acting snow ranger on the Holy Cross District. “We told the ski areas, ‘This is something that can happen to you,'” he said, referring to the rare inbounds avalanche death at A-Basin.
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Some of the amended language in the plans will help ensure that ski patrollers have the power to close slopes earlier in the season if they suspect a threat of wet slab slides, Dressler said.
Ski patrol and snow safety experts at the resorts generally have the primary say when it comes to determining avalanche hazard and terrain openings and closings, Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton said, explaining that the changes to snow safety plans just help reinforce that authority.
“In a couple of them (snow safety plans) we expanded the language, making it clearer,” Newton said. “When there’s an accident, it heightens awareness. I’d say the areas become more conservative on opening and closing terrain,” Newton said.
Some steep, slide-prone slopes could be closed earlier in the year, based on closer observations of temperatures and snow data from new locations, based on the Forest Service review, said Joe Foreman, the Dillon District-based snow ranger who helped lead the review team.
Foreman said that snow safety plans for resorts are very specific when it comes to evaluation of avalanche hazards in mid-winter conditions, considering factors like snowfall rates, wind and temperatures.
“We’re looking for similar things for spring conditions,” Foreman said, explaining some of the changes in the snow safety plans.
Forecasting wet slab avalanches is difficult, Foreman said, adding that the Forest Service is working with several resorts to gather more information on those specific conditions. The results should help forecasters in the future, he said.