Avalanche at Steamboat Resort buried ski patroller, highlights avalanche risk in Colorado

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
While avalanches are less common in Ski Town, USA because Steamboat Resort’s terrain is largely below tree line, a mixture of early season and new snow has led to an unstable snowpack locally.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT RESORT — A member of Steamboat Ski Resort’s avalanche mitigation team was caught and buried in a slide in a closed section of terrain on Tuesday, Dec. 6, highlighting how dangerous avalanche conditions are in Colorado’s northern mountains right now.

Other members of the avalanche team were able to quickly locate and dig out the ski patroller that was caught, according to Loryn Duke, director of communications for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.

“Thanks to amazing team members’ fast reaction and really good training, our patroller was dug out pretty quickly and everyone is safe,” Duke said. “This is an important reminder that snow conditions vary and slides can happen.”

While avalanches are less common in Ski Town, USA because Steamboat Resort’s terrain is largely below tree line, a mixture of early season and new snow has led to an unstable snowpack locally. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center labeled conditions around the Yampa Valley as “considerable” on Wednesday, Dec. 7 and they were “high” the day of the slide.

The considerable rating came with an overt warning from the state’s avalanche experts: “You can trigger large and dangerous avalanches that can bury and kill you.”

An avalanche killed a beloved Steamboat local in March near Fish Creek Canyon, which is not within the resort’s boundaries. In December 2019, an inbounds slide near the resort’s Chute 1 and Chute 2 runs caught three snowboarders, burying one of them. Each of them survived.  

Duke said it was really important for skiers and riders to understand the dangers of avalanches, particularly if they choose to leave the resort’s boundaries. She encouraged them to be “avy savvy” by carrying and learning to use avalanche equipment, taking avalanche safety courses and frequently checking avalanche conditions put out by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“In bounds, we do a lot of things with our snow. Not only our avalanche mitigation, but trails inside the resort get packed down with groomers and with other skiers that help stabilize that snow,” Duke said. “Out of bounds — so leaving (through) the gates or going backcountry skiing — that’s not mitigated, so people really need to understand the risks.”

The area where the avalanche occurred on Tuesday was not open to skiers, and the slide occurred as ski patrollers were working to mitigate the avalanche risks.

Duke also stressed that when areas of the resort are closed, skiers and riders need to respect that closure. Slipping under ropes into closed areas is not only dangerous for the skier or rider, it can put the resort’s staff in jeopardy as well. For example, a slide could be triggered above a crew working to mitigate the avalanche risk lower on a slope.

“We have had some people duck ropes into areas where we’re working and we have had to pull their passes because that creates a really risky, unsafe situation,” Duke said. “Always obeying rope closures is important, especially as we do this mitigation work.”

Avalanche conditions will remain considerable until at least Friday, Dec. 9, according to the avalanche center’s Wednesday evening forecast. While considerable is the third highest on the five-level avalanche scale, that scale is exponential. That means level three is twice as dangerous as level two and four times as dangerous as level one.

“A cohesive slab rests on top of old, weak snow near the ground,” the center wrote in its update. “You may trigger one of these avalanches from a distance or below, and they may run further than expected.”

Persistent slab avalanches are the main danger right now, which can be triggered from long distances away. The center recommends avoiding slopes steeper than 30 degrees and giving a wide buffer around unstable looking slopes.

“The snowpack across the northern mountains is struggling to adjust to the recent snow,” the center wrote. “As we gain volume, suspect slopes that harbor old, weak snow near the ground are becoming connected. … Avalanches are becoming larger by wrapping around terrain features (and) can run wider and farther than you expect.”

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