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December 29, 2012
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Summit County avalanche danger could prove worse than last winter

Last winter, with meager snowfall sitting atop a thin, weak base layer, Colorado was plagued by seven avalanche deaths over the course of the season.

As the powder begins to build again, experts are concerned this winter's snowpack may be set up the same way, but with more snow to fuel potential slides.

"It's a pretty similar pattern with the dry start to both seasons," Colorado Avalanche Information Center deputy director Brian Lazar said. "What we did was create these really weak layers of snow at the base of our snowpack, and then capped it with a lot of snow, more this year than last year."

That means avalanches could be bigger than they were at the same time last season, but just as easy to trigger.

There have been no avalanche fatalities in Colorado yet this winter, but there have been several incidents of people caught and buried in slides across the state.

Last year, the first of seven total deaths did not occur until mid-January.

"If there's any difference it's that we're probably creeping up in terms of the size of the avalanches this year compared to last year," Lazar said. "But, thus far, they haven't been any less sensitive to triggering. They're still pretty touchy."

Most of Summit County is sitting under a foot of fresh snow from the last week's storms, nudging the avalanche danger rating to "Considerable" the third on a five-tiered scale, according to CAIC reports.

West and northwestern winds have formed wind slabs on northwest-, east- and southeast-facing aspects at and above treeline, which remain easy to trigger on slopes of 35 degrees, the report stated.

"We like people to educate themselves on current snowpack conditions - how likely avalanches are to trigger and what size they might be - by staying up to date on avalanche advisories," Lazar said. "Even close to a ski area, if you're not in an area that's controlled, you're in the backcountry and you should always be traveling with a beacon, a shovel, a probe and, most importantly, your brain and common sense."

Though experts always advise caution, the risk of triggering an avalanche is considerably higher in the backcountry. Most local ski resorts carefully monitor and treat the snowpack within their boundaries to prevent in-bounds slides.

At Copper Mountain, ski patrollers use a variety of tactics to prevent avalanches, including blasting loose snow, breaking up or poking holes in slabs in areas that are known to be risky and packing down snow in strategic places either by walking or skiing on it.

"We are able to affect the starting zones so snow never gets to that really unstable state where ... all it's waiting for is a trigger," Copper ski patrol foreman Toby Cruse said. "We have a pretty darn good system of redundant safety measures. It's not one person making decisions, it's a whole bunch of people."

An average of 25 people die in avalanches in the United States every year, an estimated 80 percent of them of asphyxiation.

Though there's plenty of air in the snow to breathe, the buried victim will soon begin to use up all the oxygen in the snow around his or her mouth, replacing it with carbon dioxide. Unable to move, victims can asphyxiate in minutes.

"The single biggest factor for us in terms of saving a life or not saving a life is the time of burial," Joe Ben Slivka, a Summit County Rescue Group mission coordinator, told the Summit Daily in a previous interview.

If pulled from the snow in under 18 minutes, a victim has a better than 90 percent chance of survival. After approximately half an hour, that chance for survival shrinks to 34 percent. More than 90 minutes after the initial burial, it is unlikely the victim will be found alive at all.


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The Summit Daily Updated Dec 30, 2012 02:02PM Published Dec 29, 2012 11:32PM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.