Skiers walk away from Sky Chutes avalanche
Ryan Summerlin April 6, 2005
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Three local backcountry skiers, at least one of whom is a ski instructor at Copper Mountain, were cited for violating the Skier Safety Act after ducking a rope at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and subsequently triggering two avalanches in the Sky Chutes east of Copper Mountain Resort.
Authorities did not immediately identify the skiers, who were ticketed by the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the slide that caught the skiers was a deep release at treeline in the K chute, which is located on the western slope of the Tenmile Range, between Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.
Dan Burnett of the Summit County Rescue Group said the Copper Mountain Ski Patrol received a cell phone call from the skiers at about 3 p.m., saying they triggered the slide, but were OK.
Copper’s snow technician used his telescope to look at the slide and saw the skiers traversing, then noticed a second slide.
Rescuers were called out when the ski patrol did not hear back from the group.
More than two hours later, a second call came from the skiers in which the caller said “we’re out” and hung up, Burnett said.
Shortly after, a Flight for Life helicopter crew spotted the group hiding in a cluster of trees.
About 15 minutes later, the three men skied out of the trees into Copper Mountain’s Corn parking lot, which was being used as a base area by dozens of rescuers.
Although they would not identify themselves, the first skier in the group said they were never in any danger and that they were just trying to do the right thing by calling the ski patrol.
“Nobody was caught in anything … we just kind of watched it go and that was that,” he said as he brushed past the cameras from Denver television stations and into an ambulance to be questioned.
When asked why the men were hiding, he responded “we weren’t exactly hiding.”
Burnett said he believes the skiers were embarrassed and knew they had erred by ducking a rope in Breckenridge and may have been afraid of being prosecuted or being charged for the rescue service.
The Rescue Group does not charge people when it is summoned, but people who are transported to Denver via helicopter are responsible for those costs, Burnett said.
During the two hours between the initial response and when they received word that the group was safe, rescuers hadn’t even begun to ascend the chute because the danger of another avalanche was still too great, Burnett said.
More than a dozen people from Summit County Rescue Group and a
couple avalanche dogs milled around the Corn lot, some geared up with packs and snowshoes, prepared to act as soon as they heard from snow technicians that the area was safe to enter.
Binoculars were passed around as people took turns peering at the chute, looking for any signs of activity.
In the meantime, the Flight for Life helicopter scoured the area above the slide for signs of fresh tracks or victims. Patrollers from Breckenridge began the climb from Breckenridge resort to blast the area with dynamite, which would enable rescuers to approach the chute from the base area.
Burnett said the skiers should have called back to say they weren’t buried after the second slide.
“It’s an unfortunate thing,” he said. “People don’t understand that the lion’s share of rescues are done by volunteers and it’s a horrific waste of time.”
Burnett said he is concerned that if Breckenridge’s proposed Summit Lift is approved, rescuers would be called out much more frequently for situations like Wednesday’s.
If the lift is built, it would take skiers and riders to the top of Peak 8, allowing them to gain access to advanced bowls and chutes that are currently accessible only by hiking.
“If people will duck a rope and climb to the top, how many more people will be willing to climb 100 feet to the top?” he asked.
Wednesday’s call was the second avalanche-related call for rescuers in Summit County in less than two weeks.
On March 24, 26-year-old Colorado Springs resident Jeff Uppendahl was killed during an avalanche on Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge. His friend tumbled 1,870 feet with the cascading snow and survived.
Burnett said he’s relieved that this incident didn’t have a similar outcome.
“Thank God for their friends and family that they were only embarrassed and that we didn’t have to pick up more dead people,” Burnett said.