Vail, Summit County under ‘considerable’ avalanche danger
January 21, 2019
EAGLE COUNTY — Based on snow and conditions, we're having a pretty close to normal winter. But normal isn't always safe.
Monday's storm, which brought both snow and high winds, elevated the avalanche danger to "considerable" in Eagle County and Summit County. That's midway up the five-step scale used by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Still, the center's forecast for Tuesday predicts "dangerous avalanche conditions" and warns that "cautious route-finding and decision-making" are essential.
Avalanche danger varies around the state and region.
An avalanche Monday near Aspen claimed a man's life, and a Vail resident was identified Monday as the second victim of an inbounds avalanche at the Taos Ski Valley ski area in northern New Mexico that happened on Thursday.
In a telephone interview, Mike Cooperstein of the center said the danger is greater right now in Colorado's southwest and central mountains.
While snow is always welcome, the combination of new snow and strong winds can create snowpack instability. Unstable slabs of snow can form fairly far down from mountaintops, Cooperstein said.
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Conditions tend to stabilize over time, but backcountry conditions can also change rapidly, and unstable snow can crop up in unexpected places.
At Cripple Creek Backcountry in Vail, Jack Sumner said people at the store try to have blunt conversations with customers, especially people looking to rent gear.
"When people come to ask (about conditions), we give them as much data as possible," Sumner said.
People at the store work to evaluate the ability of customers, and recommend both gear and education. Education is essential, Sumner said. So is taking backcountry adventures in groups.
9 Vail Mountain Rescue missions this month
Dan Smith, of Vail Mountain Rescue, said being with a group of people is crucial in the backcountry since the people you're with are the first people available to help. Those people all need the proper gear, too.
Just as important, Smith said, is heading into the backcountry with people of roughly the same level of experience.
But experience and gear are often trumped by what Smith calls the "human factor." People who have just sweated and strained to get into the backcountry too often are loath to give up on a run, he said.
"The human factor can still kill you," Smith said.
And, if caught in an avalanche, help can be a long time coming — if it comes at all.
Smith noted if there's an incident at 3 p.m. in January — with just another couple of hours of daylight to operate — rescuers will take a hard look at conditions and the amount of time to get to an accident scene before venturing out. It can take 60 to 90 minutes or more to get to a scene, Smith said. About half of the group’s avalanche-related missions end up recovering, not rescuing, a victim, he added.
"We're here to solve your problem and not die in the process," Smith said. "There are risks I'm not going to take, and I'm not going to let my people take."
Vail Mountain Rescue has already been called out nine times this month, Smith said, putting the group on an early pace to exceed the 2018 record of 147 missions.
Be prepared to not go
Given the time it takes to get to the backcountry, Smith said it's a lot easier to not get into trouble in the first place.
If the avalanche danger is high, don't go, Smith said.
If you're going alone, don't go, he added.
Smith urged people to check the avalanche center's website for conditions before venturing out.
For locals, Smith noted that there's always another day to head into the backcountry if the danger is considerable or worse. For visitors, there's always the next trip.
When conditions are right, though, the trip is well worth it.
"I get out every chance I can," Sumner said. "It's been awesome."
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.