After Summit County ski area closures, officials urge safety in the backcountry | SummitDaily.com

After Summit County ski area closures, officials urge safety in the backcountry

This past Sunday morning, an avalanche of soft, low-density snow set off in Breckenridge Ski Resort's Horseshoe Bowl below Peak 8. Its cause is still unknown.

The slide was small and didn't catch anyone, but because the resort is closed it required the Summit County Rescue Group to ensure no injuries or burials. In addition to Flight For Life helicopter support and two dog teams, 30-plus responders descended on the scene, spending more than four hours searching the area.

Most of the state's ski areas, including Breckenridge, Keystone Resort and Copper Mountain Resort, have now shut down for the year, but it's still peak season for spring backcountry and powder hounds are actively seeking out many of the areas where snow slides can be triggered. As a result, the county's rescue operation requests that if a skier releases an avalanche, no matter how large, to contact non-emergency services to make sure they're clued in and not sending trained staff out into these dangerous zones, expending time, energy and valuable resources for no reason.

In the case of the Horseshoe Bowl, a resident of Peak 8, under the belief he saw a skier below, called in the slide. Without confirmation of the incident, though, volunteers are none the wiser and must deploy.

"If you kick off an avalanche, just call us and let us know," said Charles Pitman, spokesman for the Summit County Rescue Group. "That way if somebody else calls in, we already know what caused it, that everything is fine and no one was caught, and there's no need to respond. Because that's time consuming, costly and there's a certain amount of risk. The more we can minimize that risk, the better off we all are."

The incident in question happened within ski area boundaries, but most do not, and Pitman estimates the team receives between 15 and 20 calls per season that require rescue group members to report. In fact, within a day of the small Breckenridge avalanche, two more occurred above the boundaries of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, but someone called them in so the team was made aware and avoided unnecessary full-scale response.

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The national average is about 27 avalanche deaths each year, and Colorado typically sees the highest number of them with six. In that regard, the 2016-17 season has recorded 13 across the United States, one of which occurred in the state, in February at the Flat Tops Wilderness area, north of Glenwood Springs.

According to Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, however, the total for incidents and burials in the state has been on par with other seasons, even if the number of fatalities is lower. He attributes this year's decline in deaths to increased awareness, resources and the word getting out that each member of a backcountry party always pack a probe, beacon and shovel, and to be trained on how to properly use them.

However, avalanches are still possible well into the summer months. Although May historically has fewer accidents and deaths than January and February — the prime months for them in Colorado — they can still occur as people chase the last bits of snow before it melts. Dating to 1950-51, when the first detailed records on the subject were kept, there's been at least one avalanche death every single month of the year.

"People will continue to ski chutes, and the three areas most likely skied later and later in Summit County are Buffalo Mountain, Quandary (Peak) and the chutes on Loveland Pass," said Pitman. "As long as there's snow, somebody will go up and ski them, and we'll certainly get calls through May, and maybe some in June. And avalanches are always possible."

Before heading out to ski in unmanaged areas, essentials include having the proper tools and being educated about conditions. "The informed skier is the alive skier, is the way I look at it," Pitman said. He advises checking the forecasts and reports at the CAIC website ahead of even considering a trip out, as well as going with a friend. Because if a slide does happen, that's almost certainly who will be digging you out.

When an emergency call does arrive to the rescue group — when cellphone service is available in some of these remote areas at all — it can still take between 45 minutes and an hour and a half to mobilize crews and get them to the trailhead. Fully buried, the chance of survival in that period of time is slim, and decreases by the minute even when only partially submerged.

"Everything is time when it comes to that," said Pitman, "and it's you and your buddies. If go out and no buddy, then you're on your own. If you're buried up to your neck or have a femur fracture or back injury, all of a sudden a situation becomes really, really dire really, really quickly."

For more information about avalanche forecasts and conditions throughout the state, visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website at: http://avalanche.state.co.us

TO REPORT AN AVALANCHE:

For all emergencies where someone is buried, missing or injured, call 911. In non-emergency situations, call Summit County Dispatch at (970) 668-8600 with the time and location of the slide, and that no one is caught in the snow.

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