Man partially buried in Breckenridge backcountry avalanche
January 7, 2016
While last week's fresh snow makes for powdery slopes, several avalanches were reported over the weekend. One human-triggered slide buried a snowboarder up to his neck in a backcountry slide just behind Peak 10.
The incident was reported on Saturday, Dec. 19, in the "Numbers" backcountry, a series of five southeast-facing slopes accessible through a gate at the top of Breckenridge's Peak 10. Summit County Search & Rescue Group coordinator Charles Pitman said a group of four skiers who witnessed the slide called, unsure if anyone had been buried.
"The guy was buried up to his neck and had one arm free, so he could dig," Pitman said. "He actually extracted himself."
Breckenridge Ski Patrol responded shortly after the report, noting no injuries after the man had been extracted. Meanwhile, search and rescue had a helicopter on standby to deploy staff to the scene. A total of eight people — two groups of four — were in that stretch of backcountry at the time.
"Not one of those eight people had a beacon, probe pole or shovel," Pitman said. "People get caught up in the moment. … You sort of check caution at the door and follow your friends."
He said the slide was a soft slab avalanche, formed by a heavy, dense layer of snow on top of more fragile layers from earlier in the season. In a follow-up report, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) noted the slide happened at "Number 4" in Carter Gulch, where forecasters found "extremely weak snow" on the southeast-facing slopes.
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The slide was relatively small, measuring about 100 feet in width and length, but still had the capacity to do significant damage.
"It doesn't have to be very large to bury, cause injuries or the loss of life," Pitman said.
He explained that once an avalanche starts sliding, the resulting friction heats up the moving snow. Once it comes to a rest, the snow compresses, "like cement."
"Whatever way it sets up, that's where the arms, legs and head are," he said.
Not far from the site of the report, another, larger slide was reported by CAIC on the north headwall of Carter Gulch. The hard slab avalanche was estimated at about 1,000 feet wide, three to four feet deep and triggered naturally.
Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said they had seen several avalanches in the last week, both human-triggered and naturally occurring.
"The wind is drifting all of the new snow onto the leeward aspects," he said. "It's a large and rapid load onto a weak snowpack. That's why we're seeing so much avalanche activity."
With continued snow and strong winds forecasted through the week, CAIC has instated an avalanche advisory for Vail and Summit County through Wednesday afternoon. Avalanche danger is forecasted to be considerable (a three out of five) both below and above tree line.
Avalanche danger is lowest on the west and southwest facing slopes, due to wind direction throughout the winter. As the wind pushes snow over to east-facing slopes, the west-facing aspects are "scoured" of snow.
"The snow either ends there, or, if it's really windy, it ends up in Kansas," Pitman laughed.
He suggested skiers stick to dense trees or the tops of rocky outcroppings where the snow has blown off while hiking up and skiing down the backcountry to avoid triggering a slide. After a fresh snow, skiers might consider sticking to a 20-degree slope, which is less avalanche-prone than slopes between 30 and 45 degrees.
Of course, no method is foolproof, and persistent slab avalanches in particular can be triggered from a distance, even from below.
"We're not telling people not to go into the backcountry because we love the backcountry," he said. "Use your judgment."
He encouraged all backcountry users to check avalanche forecasts before heading out, to bring a beacon, probe and shovel and to know how to use them. Colorado Mountain College offers avalanche courses, and a beacon park is installed at the Frisco Adventure Park, free for anyone to use.
Time is of the essence, and bringing a companion allows a better chance of a quick extraction than waiting for rescue. While in the first 15 minutes after an avalanche the chance of survival is around 90 percent, after the first half-hour, the odds dip below 50 percent.
"If you need a response from us, you're having a really bad day," Pitman said. "The probability is we're looking for a body. Your buddy is gonna save you."
So far, search and rescue has been significantly busier this winter compared with last season. While the number of rescues varies widely week-to-week, the team of 55 volunteers is sometimes stretched thin.
"I'm literally holding my breath," Pitman said, gesturing to his pager. "Certainly the snow whets people's appetite."
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