Vail avalanche: ‘Some of it’s bad luck’ |

Vail avalanche: ‘Some of it’s bad luck’

Scott Toepher/Special to the DailyThe deadly East Vail Chutes avalanche, which occurred Jan. 4, was between 2 and 7 feet deep at its crown.

VAIL, Colorado ” Each year, countless skiers enter the prime avalanche terrain in the East Vail Chutes backcountry unprepared for the dangers that lie there.

Many are without proper equipment like beacons, shovels and probes. Others are without avalanche-safety training.

But the three men who set off the first deadly slide in East Vail in 11 years were prepared, and not cavalier about the dangers, investigators say.

“Here’s some guys who are really trying to do it right,” said Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which investigated the avalanche. “And, God, some of it’s just bad luck.”

The men fell victim to so-called “deep slab instability” ” weak layers deep in the snow. It’s a condition that’s pervasive across Colorado and the West this season.

There was no clear, obvious sign of avalanche danger. The danger was rated as moderate, with pockets of considerable danger.

But there were subtle clues to the hazards, Toepfer said.

“I think (they) did what probably 90 percent of the people out there would have done,” Toepfer said.

That day, temperatures were warm. Recent windy storms had loaded slopes with snow ” both of which could have increased avalanche danger.

The Jan. 4 slide, in a chute called Charlie’s Death Chute, caught and killed one of the three men, snowboarder Jesse Brigham of Vail and Worcester, Mass.

The three men ” a skier and two snowboarders ” carried beacons, shovels and probes. Two of them had taken avalanche safety classes, Toepfer said.

“They knew the avalanche rating,” said Don Dressler of the Forest Service. “They had the equipment. They followed the one-at-a-time rules.”

The men did tests ” so-called “ski cuts” and “stomp” tests ” at the top of the chute to assess its safety, Toepfer said.

In fact, one of those tests triggered a smaller avalanche, about 1 foot deep, that exposed the slope to a substantial amount of weight, Toepfer said.

“Far more weight than you, me, my son, my dog going down the slope at the same time,” Toepfer said.

That was a factor in their decision to ski the chute, Toepfer said.

The men didn’t dig a snow pit to do compaction tests, Toepfer said. The top of the slope was exposed and the men would have been in danger, he said.

Brigham was the last of the three to ride the chute. He was two turns into the chute when it slid.

The avalanche slid on a very small, weak layer about 7 feet deep in the snowpack, Toepfer said. The weak layer was just 1 millimeter thick, he said.

“This layer, if you were out there studying (the snowpack), you’d probably never find it,” Toepfer said.

The 130-foot-wide avalanche slid for 1,100 feet. Brigham was carried over several cliff bands and into trees. He was located by his skiing partners about 10 to 20 minutes after the slide, buried 3-4 feet under the snow. He was pronounced dead at the scene, with the cause of death ruled asphyxiation.

The East Vail Chutes are outside of Vail Ski Area, but are accessed through a backcountry gate near the top of Vail’s Back Bowls.

About 150 people ski the East Vail Chutes on a busy day, Dressler said.

About half of those skiers don’t have the proper equipment, such as beacons, shovels and probes, Dressler estimated.

Following the fatal slide, the Forest Service is not considering any change to the East Vail Chutes access, Dressler said.

Many times there are more glaring red flags that indicate a slide is imminent, Toepfer said. One glaring red flag is if there have already been nearby avalanches at similar elevations and aspects.

A man died in an avalanche in the early ’90s near Charlie’s Death Chute after he and a friend skied adjacent to a slope that had just slid the day before.

“It doesn’t get any clearer than that,” he said.

Recent tracks seemed to indicate that others had skied Charlie’s Death Chute in the days before it slid, Toepfer said.

“Why did it have to happen to those guys who are trying to do everything like they’ve been taught?” Toepher said.

“But it’s the mountains, and there’s risk for anything you do, whether it’s lightning or rockfall. There’s a gazilion things that can happen to you out there.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or

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