Killer avalanche was big, unpredictable, CAIC says
VAIL — The avalanche that killed a lifetime local was likely unpredictable, and big enough to damage a house, says the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Tony Seibert, 24, died Tuesday when he was caught in an avalanche in the East Vail Chutes. He was skiing there with three friends, all of whom were injured in the slide.
“We have these persistent weak layers and sometimes they stick around. They fail and break in surprising and unpredictable ways,” said the CAIC’s Brian Lazar.
The slide that killed Seibert occurred on an east-facing slope, Lazar said.
It followed several days of storms that dumped snow into those East Vail faces, most of which face east.
“Most of the snow came in on westerly winds, which means it was loading and drifting on these leeward aspects,” Lazar said.
The CAIC’s preliminary estimates are that the avalanche was a D-3 on the agency’s destructive scale. That’s big enough to knock a car or truck off the road, knock over trees or damage a wood frame house, Lazar said.
Lazar said its preliminary estimate is based on photos and information available Thursday morning. A team of investigators is on the scene, he said.
“The Colorado Avalanche Information Service has people in the field right now, trying to determine how big the avalanche was and want caused it,” Lazar said.
Avalanches are rated on a scale from 1-5 — 1 is the smallest and poses little or no danger; 5 is big enough to level an entire village, Lazar said.
“We don’t have 5’s because the terrain isn’t tall enough,” Lazar said. “However, it doesn’t take an avalanche even as big as a 3 to cause injury or death.”
Last year’s Sheep Creek avalanche near Loveland Pass was a D-3, Lazar said. It killed five people, Colorado’s the worst avalanche accident since 1962 in Twin Lakes, and is the worst ever involving backcountry skiers and riders.
The CAIC has raised the avalanche danger rating to “considerable” for Vail and Summit.
Seibert was the grandson of Vail founder Pete Seibert. The other three skiers were treated and released from the hospital, according to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
Lazar said they accessed the chute from a backcountry gate in the Vail ski area, as most do, but were outside the ski area boundary when they were swept away in the slide.
The avalanche covered all of CDC — Charlie’s Death Chute — in the popular East Vail Chutes area. It broke 15 feet at the crown and ran hundreds of feet, almost to the bottom, said Dan Smith, with Vail Mountain Rescue Group. The terrain in CDC is steep, 35-39 degrees, with an east to east-northeast aspect just at treeline.
The East Vail Chutes is an out-of-bounds area accessible through a gate from the lift-served area of Vail Mountain. It is popular with backcountry skiers, but has been the site of eight avalanche fatalities in the last three decades.
A Jan. 4, 2008, avalanche in the same area killed 27-year-old Jesse Brigham. That slide contained a hard slab 2 to 7 feet deep and 130 feet wide, and ran 800 vertical feet, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Spencer Logan with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the cold weather that’s typical in January weakens the early-season snow layers.
“On the bottom of the snowpack we have a really weak foundation,” Logan said. “We have early-season snow that sat on the ground, and it gets really weak in cold weather, and then we’ve had some pretty good snowfall in December that’s covered that.”
The storms that came through our area on Saturday and Sunday didn’t help, Logan said.
“One of the problems we were dealing with over the last two days is windloading,” Logan said Tuesday night. “We’ve had a few small storms accompanied by very strong winds and that drifts the snow into slabs 2 to 4 feet thick. Those are on top of the snowpack.”
Five people have died in avalanches in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana in the last two weeks.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at (970) 748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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