Around the Mountains: AvaLungs, and luck, save backcountry trio |

Around the Mountains: AvaLungs, and luck, save backcountry trio

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VAIL ” The Denver Post’s Scott Willoughby reports a fascinating tale of both arrogance and luck from the backcountry of the Gore Range north of Vail.

Three people were exploring from a base at the Eiseman Hut when caught in an avalanche that buried them under as much as seven feet of snow for more than two hours.

That they got caught in the avalanche suggests that they chose to ignore everything they had learned about safety in steep-snow country.

That they survived can be traced directly to the fact that they had a device called an AvaLung ” that and also a great deal of luck, pure and simple.

Penn Newhard, a spokesman for Black Diamond, the manufacturer of AvaLung, said there have been 12 or 13 documented cases of people surviving avalanche burials because of AvaLung.

“But I’m always hesitant to push them too hard,” he told The Post. “Even beacons have just under a 50 percent survivor-recovery rate. This isn’t like Superman’s cape. Sooner or later, someone is going to get dug up with a ‘Lung in their mouth, having not survived.”

In fact, luck may have been as much or even more important than the device. The snow from the slide was unusually loose. The looseness allowed the men to clear an air passage. More often, avalanche debris heavily compacted, more akin to clay than Styrofoam.

A report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center says two of the men had passed avalanche courses and were familiar with the area. One was on skis, another on a split snowboard, and the third on snowshoes. Even as they ascended a ridge, they saw evidence of naturally triggered avalanches.

Still, they did not dig a hasty pit, to better evaluate snow stability. Instead, they continued up a 40-degree slope, which is prime avalanche territory. The greatest danger is on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees.

Following a “whumph” of collapsing snow, the snow began moving, and the men were carried a mere 20 feet down the slope. Still, it was enough to buried them as much as seven feet.

All three men were buried for at least an hour before one managed to dig out. The longest and deepest burial lasted two hours and 14 minutes under seven feet of snow.

Brad Sawtell, a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, credits the men for being well equipped. All had not only avalanche transceivers, but also shovels and probe poles.

All those tools are needed for rapid recovery of victims who are not first killed by trauma or by hypothermia. Suffocation accounts for 75 percent of deaths.

But 92 percent of avalanche victims not otherwise killed survive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes. After that, the odds go down rapidly. Only 25 percent remain after an hour. After two hours, almost no one survives.

Being buried deeply also makes the odds more dismal. Roughly 2 percent of avalanche victims survive a burial of seven feet.

ASPEN ” Is there a silver lining in these enormous economic storm clouds? Well, from the perspective of the ski-marketing folks, they feel wanted again.

For the last decade, ski towns have been convulsed with the thinking that they were driven by real estate. “It’s all about real estate,” said an Aspen mayor at a conference several years ago, and a former town manager from Vail agreed with him.

In fact, economic studies done by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments several years ago showed that real estate had become the top economic driver in Vail, Aspen and several other ski towns.

But real estate sales last year were down 40 to 50 percent in most of the major markets, and perhaps worse yet, in the also-ran resort valleys. With that, the tourism sector is now feeling more important once again.

It’s a somewhat enfeebled muscle, to be sure, but what would Aspen and Vail look like this winter if the only ones bringing home the bacon were real-estate agents?

In fact, there always has been a symbiotic relationship between tourism and real-estate sales. Some ski towns, such as Aspen, Crested Butte and Telluride, existed before the ski areas, but real estate prices were inflated by the tourism economy. In other towns, such as Vail and Snowmass, real estate development subsidized skiing operations.

David Perry, the senior vice president at the Aspen Skiing Co., obliquely noted this synergism in a recent appearance before the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

“We are a ski town, and tourism drives real estate,” he said.

Aspen actually had a good January, helped both by the X Games and by inexpensive airfares. Advance reservations outpaced the Christmas and New Year’s week, said Perry, former head of Colorado Ski Country USA and marketing director at Whistler-Blackcomb

What are not necessarily holding up, however, are lodging rates.

“Will somebody pay full price?” joked Warren Klug, general manager of the Aspen Square Condominiums. “Everyone who calls is expecting a special deal.”

With an interesting in protecting what he calls “rate integrity,” he is reluctant to offer deep discounts.

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