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Despite near-record avalanche death toll in Colorado, lure of the backcountry still powerful for many

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- Data Covid-19 USA — 

Despite a his­tor­i­cal­ly unsta­ble snow­pack that has Col­orado on the verge of break­ing its record for avalanche fatal­i­ties, the lure of pow­der remains pow­er­ful for back­coun­try skiers, snow­board­ers and snowmobilers.

There have been 11 avalanche fatal­i­ties this win­ter, one short of the record set in 1993. Feb­ru­ary has been espe­cial­ly dead­ly with sev­en deaths, three just this week. But because of a series of storms that began Feb. 3, fol­low­ing poor ear­ly sea­son snow, back­coun­try enthu­si­asts are mak­ing up for lost time.

On Thurs­day, the tem­per­a­ture at Berthoud Pass was 9 degrees at noon as Jim Smith of Den­ver fin­ished off three hours of back­coun­try ski­ing, doing laps in an area called Pump­house that required stren­u­ous climb­ing along with gid­dy descents. His hydra­tion sys­tem had frozen and ice clung to his whiskers, but the 74-year-old was lov­ing life.

“The thing about back­coun­try ski­ing that’s very attrac­tive is that it’s so beau­ti­ful,” the Den­ver res­i­dent said. “I only come up when there’s 4–6 inch­es of pow­der because for me, that’s what it’s all about, the pow­der. There’s noth­ing like it. It’s so exhil­a­rat­ing. It’s like float­ing on a cloud.”

The back­coun­try avalanche dan­ger on Thurs­day was rat­ed “con­sid­er­able” by the Col­orado Avalanche Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter, mean­ing lev­el three on a scale of one to five. Smith said he almost nev­er skis any­thing steep­er than 25 degrees, know­ing that most avalanch­es occur on slopes of 30–45 degrees. He was ski­ing alone, although plen­ty of oth­er peo­ple were ski­ing the pass.

“I don’t take any chances,” Smith said. “I’m real­ly care­ful. Ski­ing alone is not a good idea, but when you want to go, you got­ta go.”

There were 22 cars at the Jones Pass trail­head a few miles west of Berthoud Thurs­day morn­ing. Dan McGrew, a Den­ver fire­fight­er with lots of back­coun­try expe­ri­ence and edu­ca­tion, was plan­ning to avoid slopes steep­er than 30 degrees as he set out.

“Every­one who goes out here thinks it’s not going to hap­pen to them,” McGrew said. “You have to have some form of humil­i­ty in your deci­sion-mak­ing, and real­ize how error-prone human beings are when they’re out here.”

Last Sun­day morn­ing, a 57-year-old snow­board­er set out by him­self to climb Mount Tre­lease, locat­ed in the back­coun­try just north of Inter­state 70 and adja­cent to the Love­land ski area, to ride in an area known as Pat’s Knob. The dai­ly fore­cast from the avalanche cen­ter that morn­ing rat­ed the dan­ger as “con­sid­er­able.” In addi­tion, the CAIC had issued a “spe­cial avalanche advi­so­ry” two days ear­li­er that was still in effect, say­ing in part, “Avalanche con­di­tions are unusu­al. Back­coun­try trav­el­ers can trig­ger avalanch­es that may break very wide and run the full length of the avalanche path. Your nor­mal routes and safe­ty habits may not keep you out of a dan­ger­ous avalanche.”

The snow­board­er, lat­er iden­ti­fied by the Clear Creek Coun­ty coroner’s office as David Hei­de of St. Mary’s (a small com­mu­ni­ty near Ida­ho Springs), was caught in an avalanche some time around 8:45 a.m. Accord­ing to an acci­dent report issued Tues­day by the CAIC, the frac­ture line was as much as 20 feet high and was 850 feet wide, longer than two foot­ball fields. The slide ran 500 ver­ti­cal feet, leav­ing a debris field 6- to 10-feet deep.

Short­ly after the slide, anoth­er snow­board­er head­ing up the trail caught a glimpse of Sam’s Knob from a dis­tance and noticed an avalanche had occurred. That rid­er, not iden­ti­fied in the CAIC report, and oth­er back­coun­try trav­el­ers com­mu­ni­cat­ed with author­i­ties and helped them locate the victim’s body.

The Alpine Res­cue Team, a vol­un­teer search-and-res­cue team that oper­ates in Clear Creek, Gilpin and Jef­fer­son coun­ties, respond­ed with more than 20 mem­bers, along with Clear Creek Coun­ty sher­iffs deputies, a half dozen Love­land ski patrollers and CAIC staff mem­bers. They had been con­cerned that more avalanch­es could hap­pen in the search area.

“It’s pet­ri­fy­ing every time we step out to think, ‘All right, what could hap­pen? Could we be the next one caught in a slide?” said Clear Creek Coun­ty under­sh­er­iff Bruce Snelling. In cer­tain areas, “We have told peo­ple, ‘Snow con­di­tions are such that we’re not going to go in there for a cou­ple of months to recov­er some­body.’ Some places are just too risky.”

Hei­de had been car­ry­ing his cell­phone, but not an avalanche transceiver.

“Unfor­tu­nate­ly he had made con­tact with sev­er­al trees on the way down, so even though his avalanche airbag was deployed, when you get run down through the trees like that, it’s pret­ty tough” to sur­vive, said Tom Wood, who ran the recov­ery oper­a­tion for the Alpine Res­cue Team.

Snelling under­stands the attrac­tion of the back­coun­try but urges peo­ple not to go alone, to check the dai­ly CAIC report, to edu­cate them­selves and bring all appro­pri­ate equipment.

“I get it,” Snelling said. “It’s a draw, being in the back­coun­try. It’s tran­quil, it’s peace­ful, it’s beau­ti­ful. But you’ve got to take precautions.”

Wood wor­ries that the things avalanche experts say can fall on deaf ears, even in an unusu­al­ly active year for avalanches.

“It’s just a fine line between edu­cat­ing the pub­lic why this isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the best time or the best idea right now, ver­sus preach­ing to peo­ple, talk­ing down to peo­ple, and then they just tune you out,” Wood said. “We can say ‘don’t go out solo’ until we’re blue in the face, and peo­ple will still think that applies to every­one but them.”

Also on Sun­day, a snow­mo­bil­er was killed near Rollins Pass. Anoth­er was killed Tues­day near Rand.

When the pan­dem­ic closed Col­orado ski areas last year and peo­ple bought up back­coun­try gear in huge num­bers, search-and-res­cue teams across the state expressed con­cerns that inex­pe­ri­enced, ill-equipped peo­ple would go out and get them­selves into trou­ble. But Col­orado avalanche experts have noticed that this year’s avalanche fatal­i­ties tend to have been peo­ple with lots of back­coun­try expe­ri­ence who were well-equipped with safe­ty gear.

“It’s not the novices and the new­bies who are get­ting into trou­ble,” said Dale Atkins, a mem­ber of the Alpine Res­cue Team since 1974 who also spent 19 years as a CAIC fore­cast­er. “It’s peo­ple who have some knowl­edge, and they have the enthu­si­asm and fit­ness to get out and enjoy the moun­tains. This year is one of those years when what your expe­ri­ence has told you, or what you think is safe, or what has been safe for you in past years, may not be safe this year.”

Atkins is an avid back­coun­try ski­er, but says he typ­i­cal­ly skis slopes less than 30 degrees, no steep­er than inter­me­di­ate runs at ski areas.

“I love the steep and deep, but I’m also jad­ed from many years of moun­tain res­cue and avalanche acci­dent inves­ti­ga­tions,” Atkins said. “I’ve real­ized I don’t need to ski the steep. I like the deep, but I don’t need to be on the steep. If you stay to shal­low slopes, and you stay out from under­neath the steep slopes, you can be out there all day, hav­ing fun and not hav­ing to wor­ry about avalanches.

“But if we were hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion 20 years ago, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t sound so sage.”

Colorado’s 2020–2021 avalanche season deaths

Due to unusu­al snow con­di­tions in the back­coun­try, Col­orado has had 11 avalanche fatal­i­ties this sea­son — three of them this week — and stands to break the record of 12, set in 1993. Over the past 10 years, Col­orado has aver­aged 5.9 avalanche fatal­i­ties per sea­son. This is the dead­liest sea­son since the win­ter of 2012–13, which also saw 11. The low­est fatal­i­ty counts over the past 10 win­ters (three deaths) occurred in 2017–18 and 2014–15. This year’s fatalities:

  • Dec. 16: a back­coun­try ski­er near Ohio Pass, Anthracite Range
  • Dec. 19: two back­coun­try skiers, near Ophir
  • Dec. 26: a back­coun­try ski­er, Berthoud Pass
  • Feb. 1: three back­coun­try skiers, near Ophir
  • Feb. 4: a back­coun­try ski­er, East Vail Chutes
  • Feb. 14: a back­coun­try snow­board­er, Mount Tre­lease near Love­land ski area
  • Feb. 14: a snow­mo­bil­er, near Rollins Pass
  • Feb. 16: a snow­mo­bil­er, near Ruby Moun­tain in Nev­er Sum­mer Range

Source: Col­orado Avalanche Infor­ma­tion Center

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