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Forest Service releases A-Basin slide report

Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc
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SILVERTHORNE ” U.S. Forest Service officials Friday released results of an investigation into the May 20 avalanche at Arapahoe Basin that killed skier David Conway, 53.

The Forest Service announced that, before of the coming ski season, the agency’s Rocky Mountain region will work with ski area avalanche experts to review snow safety procedures.

“This fall, we’ll go through the snow-safety plans, and augment them with any state-of-the-art science of wet snow slab avalanches,” said White River National Forest supervisor Maribeth Gustafson.



Any new plans would be included before the start of the coming season.

According to the report, Conway died of blunt trauma head injuries, despite efforts by rescuers to revive him when he was found about 30 minutes after he was caught by the slide.

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Gustafson said the Forest Service doesn’t investigate all ski area accidents, but that unusual nature of the rare, fatal in-bounds avalanche required study to ensure that the agency is administering ski area permits to the best of its ability.

Public safety is “the No. 1 concern,” she said. The slide marked the first in-bounds avalanche death in 30 years at a Colorado ski area.

Arapahoe Basin officials offered a short statement on the deadly slide, once again offering condolences to Conway’s family and indicating that the ski area will work with the Forest Service to increase understanding of wet snow slab avalanches, but didn’t comment on any potential pending litigation.

Forest Service officials identified ski injury attorney Jim Chalat as the contact person for Conway’s family.

Chalat, representing Conway’s widow, Elizabeth Gaffney, said Conway had an enormous circle of friends that was deeply impacted by his death. Elizabeth Gaffney is an executive with Children’s Hospital in Denver, and Conway is also survived by two college-age daughters.

“The family was really blown apart by this,” Chalat said. Offering a formal statement on behalf of the family, Chalat continued: “They appreciate the efforts the Forest Service put into the investigation and support the Forest Service intentions to strengthen its snow safety standards, but the snow safety standards referenced by the Forest Service report do not take into account a high altitude ski area staying open until late May with temperatures remaining above freezing.”

Chalat responded with a “no comment” when asked whether legal action is being pursued.

The Forest Service team, including an investigator from the Lake Tahoe area and the director of the agency’s avalanche center, concluded:

– that existing snow strata and warm weather contributed to the avalanche;

– that wet slab avalanche mechanics are poorly understood;

– that the Arapahoe Basin snow safety plan does not specifically address wet slab conditions;

– that A-Basin conducted a rapid and appropriate response to the incident. The investigators based their conclusions on a six-day site visit and numerous interviews with ski-area personnel and others, as well as a review of the pertinent weather records; and

– the agency also determined the avalanche trigger can’t be determined with 100 percent accuracy, leaving open the question of whether Conway triggered the avalanche himself, whether it was triggered by another skier above, or whether the avalanche was a natural release.

Gustafson said that A-Basin ski patrollers “fulfilled the spirit and intent of the ski area’s snow safety plan,” and that the existing plan met all existing standards for review and approval by the Forest Service.

“The current standard procedures for snow safety were followed,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson said that characterizing the avalanche as a fluke or freak accident was not an adequate explanation in terms of giving due respect to the victim and his family.

Even just the potential for litigation has already had an effect on the community of snow safety experts.

Outgoing Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Knox Williams, speaking during his last official day on the job, said that A-Basin director of operations Alan Henceroth had been prepared to discuss the deadly slide at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, an early October concave for forecasters and ski patrollers.

But because of the potential for litigation, that likely won’t happen.

“And that’s too bad,” Williams said, explaining that the science of avalanche forecasting and control can benefit and learn from open discussions of accidents.

Framing his observations as a commentary on society in general, Williams said it’s unfortunate that Henceroth’s inability to comment on the accident is due to the fact that anything he says in such a venue could ultimately be used against the ski area in a lawsuit.

Of course, there is always opportunity for that dialogue in the future, when any legal issues have been resolved, but that won’t be in time to help this year’s crop of avalanche experts who can use all the information they can muster in their ongoing efforts to tame the White Death.

Williams said the mechanics of wet snow slides are known, but that they present a more difficult forecasting problem than avalanches resulting directly from a storm cycle.

“I’ve thought about it often. I haven’t come close to an answer as to why the avalanche occurred that day, and not the day before,” Williams said.

That, and related questions, are likely to linger in the minds of many Colorado skiers, who assume some risk when they whiz down the state’s many slopes each winter, but who probably don’t expect a heavily skied run in the middle of a ski area to suddenly rupture in a gush of wet snow, heavy enough to sheer the limbs of trees and piling up in massive 10-foot mounds of concrete-like debris.

The deadly May 20 slide was preceded by another incident on Buffalo Mountain a few days earlier.

The CAIC’s avalanche reports in the days preceding the slide indicated the potential for wet snow slides in the backcountry, highlighting the Buffalo Mountain accident.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.


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