Backcountry snowpack can be hard to read
When a large avalanche let loose near Vail Pass Jan. 29., one of the four people skiing in the area was injured. In the world of avalanches, that’s a good result.
In fact, the local avalanche season has been been a fortunate one so far. Snowpack is good, and, for the most part, pretty stable. But Spencer Logan of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said that stability can be deceiving.
“There may not be any clues,” an area is about to slide, Logan said. And, Logan said, when a seemingly stable slope does slide, it tends to be a big one.
The Jan. 31 avalanche near Vail Pass was a good example of this, Logan said. That slide was about 800 feet wide, 1,000 feet long and 4 feet deep.
“The snow that went was strong on a weak layer,” Logan said. “Somebody hit the right spot, and it really slid.”
Don Dressler, the backcountry recreation ranger with the local U.S. Forest Service offfice, said slides often happen without warning. In fact, a slope that might have been stable in the morning might be ready to let go by the afternoon, depending on weather.
That’s why the state’s avalanche information center updates its website every morning, using information from guides, rangers, skiers and others.
“That’s the best place for information,” Dressler said.
But education is crucial.
Mike Duffy teaches avalanche awareness classes to backcountry skiers and boarders, snowmobilers and others. He said being as educated as possible about conditions is crucial, but even that’s no guarantee of being safe, especially without the right gear.
Duffy said people tend to think they know more than they do about snow conditions. That could be why only 20 to 25 percent of those skiing near local ski areas have avalanche beacons, which can help rescuers get to someone much, much faster.
And speed is important, Duffy said. Those killed by avalanches often suffocate. And getting people out requires moving a lot of snow, which is heavier than people think it is.
“If you’re buried 3 feet deep, somebody’s going to have to move between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of snow to get to them,” Duffy said. “Even being buried in 6 inches of powder snow it’s hard to do a sit-up.”
That’s why Dressler said the first rule of backcountry recreation is good decision-making, either to avoid a slide-prone slope or to help a companion who’s been caught.
“It takes a lot of time to mobilize resources for a rescue,” Dressler said.
In the Jan. 31 avalanche, the first 911 call came in about 3:45 p.m. The first crews arrived at the scene at about 6 p.m.
That’s why so many rescue missions turn into recovery operations.
Besides education, people who spend a lot of time in the backcountry are big believers in having the right gear.
Duffy said he knows people with first-hand experiences with backpacks that have inflatable airbags.
“They’ve been used for years in Europe,” Duffy said. “If you use one there’s a 98 percent chance of being on the surface or having a body part visible.”
But the airbag backpacks start at about $700, and Duffy said snowmobilers have so far been quicker to use the new gear.
In the end, though, gear is only as good as the people who use it.
“Nothing can replace decision-making in the backcountry,” Dressler said.
In the Jan. 31 incident, two skiers and two snowboarders had planned to ride the south side of Uneva Peak above the Colorado Department of Transportation sand shed.
Two of the riders made it halfway down the slope. The third person to ride the slope, a female snowboarder, triggered the slide. The woman was carried about 1,000 feet by the avalanche and was partially buried. She was dug out by her friends, but hurt both of her ankles and was unable to ride or walk out.
A team from the Vail Mountain Rescue Group reached the injured woman at about 6 p.m. and evacuated her with a “Sked” stretcher. They reached the CDOT facility on the interstate by 8:30 p.m., and the woman was taken via ambulance to Vail Valley Medical Center.
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