Summit County rescuers responded to three avalanches this weekend
Summit County rescuers were able to evacuate a man partially buried from an avalanche on Saturday — one of three reported slides over the weekend. The rescue was the first of the year in Summit, though rescuers have been dispatched as early as October.
Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG) received a call from dispatch just after 2 p.m. on Saturday, when a man said he had injured himself skiing in the backcountry. He reported he was in an open meadow on the west side of Bald Mountain, a popular area for winter sports. But the man was nowhere to be seen.
“When we arrived, we interviewed everybody,” mission coordinator Brian Binge said. “We searched around; finally got one person in the ridgeline, and he was able to see the avalanche.”
The man was partially buried, from the waist down, on Bald Mountain’s steeper, more avalanche-prone east side. With a slope of about 38 degrees — the northeast facing slope — and the fresh snow from Friday, it made for the perfect storm.
“He was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Binge added.
One rescuer skied down to assist the man, while a Flight For Life helicopter was able to land on a grassy knoll nearby, despite strong winds that evening. While other rescuers waited atop the ridge, the rescuer advised they do not ski down, as avalanche danger was still high.
The man was extricated around 4:30 p.m., just as the sun went down, with several injuries. Binge said that while the injuries were not life threatening, if the man stayed out for too long, he would have risked hypothermia. The man was flown to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and treated that evening.
“When I interviewed him in the hospital, he said he tumbled down head over heels and had never been fully buried,” he said. “The first thing he said when we visited him in the hospital was that he was lucky to be alive and grateful we were able to come and get him.”
SCRG responded to two additional avalanches over the weekend, with no additional injuries reported. On Sunday, Nov. 22, a slide was reported in the second steep gully west of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The riders nearby were able to avoid the slide.
Just an hour later, another slide was reported at the top of Loveland Pass, with unknown burials. Rescuers responded with a Flight For Life helicopter, but, after an hour of investigation, they determined no one had been buried.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Director Ethan Green noted that while avalanches have historically been reported at the beginning of the season, “the avalanches we saw on Saturday and Sunday were bigger than what we see this time of year.”
He said the large slides were all “persistent slab” avalanches, with recent storms forming a strong slab of snow on top of weaker snow from earlier this season. These types of avalanches can be trigged days or weeks after a snowstorm.
“These were large avalanches. Killer slides. And we’re lucky we didn’t have a fatality — we’re really lucky,” CAIC forecaster Scott Toepfer said.
According to CAIC’s forecast, the Vail and Summit County area faces moderate avalanche danger near and above treeline, especially on east- and north-facing slopes, with a pitch of 30 to 50 degrees.
Scott suggested that those looking to head into the backcountry take an avalanche class, with courses ranging from an hour-long evening class to a weeklong intensive for the more backcountry oriented. He also suggested that skiers and riders bring a partner of similar ability.
“This is what we think of as a lifelong learning experience,” Scott said. “ If something doesn’t feel right, you have to be able to say no. It’s gonna be there tomorrow, it’s gonna be there next week, it’s gonna be there 10 years from now.”
Backcountry users are advised to check conditions on the CAIC’s website daily before heading to the slopes. Skiers and riders are also advised to at minimum bring an avalanche beacon, transceiver and shovel, with Recco equipment and airbag packs also suggested.
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