Mountain Town News: Big snows and a rash of deaths in avalanches and in treewells

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Snow has killed in many ways in the West during recent weeks as snow finally arrived in some previously parched areas while growing ever-deeper in others during this unusually pronounced La Niña winter.

The avalanche toll for the winter reached 18 in the United States, all in Western states and Alaska.

Washington state had six avalanche deaths in 10 days. The latest victims over the weekend were a backcountry skier and two backcountry snowmobilers who were killed in separate accidents. Two snowshoers and a snowmobiler were killed in prior days.

More unusual were the deaths on Sunday of a 50-year-old woman and her 7-year-old son at California’s Kirkwood Mountain Resort. They were skiing to a slope-side condominium when snow fell from a rooftop on top of them, burying them under 3 feet of unusually heavy and snow that set up quickly.

“It was horrible timing. They were right beneath that one piece of roof and it just unloaded,” Alpine County Undersheriff Spencer Case told the Reno Gazette Journal. “A few feet one way or another and it could have come out differently.”

Rare in-bound avalanches hit two California resorts. At Mammoth, an avalanche hit eight people, causing minor injuries to six of them. Nobody was killed.

At Squaw, nobody died but there was a close call when a 400-yard-wide avalanche roared down a gulch, hitting five people. Two people were injured, one seriously. But one without injuries had the closest call.

The man, who was on the first day of a three-week snowboarding trip in the Sierra Nevada with his wife, was completely buried. Only a tip of his snowboard was above the surface.

Others began digging, reaching his face and upper board under 2 to 3 feet of snow, according to an account in the San Jose Mercury. He had blacked out after about 45 seconds but came to once his face was cleared of snow. His first statement was, “Where is my wife?” He had been under the snow for 6 minutes.

About 5 feet of snow had fallen on Tahoe-Truckee resorts in the several days prior.

Earlier that same day, the body of a 42-year-old snowboarder was found at Squaw. His body was found in a treed area using the RECCO technology, which allows searchers to track the sensors embedded in some sporting goods items.

The snowboarder was one of up to eight people who have died this winter in Western resorts from snow immersion suffocation. The snowboarder died in an inverted position, his head 3 to 4 feet under the snow, according to David Clark, chief deputy corner of Placer County.

Others have died in tree wells, two of them at Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort. One, a 56-year-old skier, died after falling into a tree well on an inbounds run near the summit. As is common with such deaths, he had become separated from his skiing companion, reported the Flathead Beacon. Another snowboarder died there on New Year’s Eve.

In Oregon, two people died on the same day at Mt. Bachelor. The Bend Bulletin reports that a 24-year-old snowboarder had fallen into a tree well on an expert run and was buried in 6 feet of snow. A friend was digging frantically to get the snow away, and then others joined in. Once they had fished him from the hole around the tree, they begin administering CPR, but it was to no avail. He was pronounced dead at the ski area’s parking lot.

Two hours later, another skier went missing on the last run of the day. That victim, a 19-year-old skier, was skiing alone on an advanced run. She was reported to be an honors student at the University of Oregon.

Tree wells are hollow areas around the tree trunks shielded by branches from gathering snow. Victims typically fall in head first, their skis or snowboard holding them upside down. As they struggle to get upright or remove their skis, the snow cascades down around their heads. When blood runs to their inverted heads, they pass out and suffocation ensues.

Two-thirds of people who die from snow immersions do so in tree wells. The remainder are in open terrain, says Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute.

Baugher reports an average of four people have died from snow immersions from 2000 to 2017. The highest was nine fatalities in the winter of 2010-11. However, in two winters, no deaths occurred. This stands as the second highest season for fatalities in Baugher’s database. He has also studied records to the 1970s, but they are more spotty.

In his studies, Baugher has found a pattern. La Niña brings the heavier snows in many places. Then, especially after a big storm following a prolonged dry period, people get out — exactly when conditions are most dangerous. Avalanche danger at ski areas can be reduced through mitigation, but the risk of unconsolidated snow around trees and other parts of the ski areas can linger much longer.

Baugher has found that California had the most snow immersion suffocations followed closely by Colorado and then Washington, Montana and Utah. Although Stowe, Vermont, had a snow-immersion death last winter, nearly all such deaths occur in the West. For more information go to

The prices paid for keeping winter roads free of snow

KETCHUM, Idaho – Mechanics in Idaho’s Wood River Valley say they’ve been seeing more problems resulting from salts spread on local roads and highways to melt snow.

Layke Felton at Ketchum Auto reported that his shop recently saw a Ford Ranger pickup and a Jeep whose “frames were literally rotted in half.” They’re junk now, he said.

At Car Doctor, located down-valley in Bellevue, Greg Ballantyne reports a clear trend. “Thirty years ago, the cars didn’t corrode at all. All the cars are showing signs now. It’s getting worse and worse.”

Greg Moore of the Idaho Mountain Express observes that this increase correlates with when the Idaho Transportation Department began using stronger concentrations of chloride deicers. From a 6-to-1 ratio of sand to salt the agency doubled the concentration to 3-to-1. More recently, the agency has upped the ante even more, sometimes splashing highways with deicers alone, forgoing sand altogether.

Several deicing salts are used to keep roads and streets clear of snow. Cheapest and most common is sodium chloride, also known as rock salt. It is also the slowest to activate and most ineffective. Calcium chloride melts ice at a lower temperature and remains as a liquid longer. Newest of the deicing salts is magnesium chloride that has the advantages of calcium chloride and damages concrete less than calcium chloride. It is produced primarily from brine drawn from the Great Salt Lake.

Application of these salts clearly reduces collisions. Examining accident data in Ontario from 2000 to 2006, a team from the University of Waterloo found 93 percent fewer accidents on four-lane highways and a 42 percent reduction on two-lane roads when deicing salts were used.

But are deicers used too much? Robert English, president of, a division of

Chemical Solutions, a manufacturers of deicing salts, says they are.

“I’m in the business, but I think the amount of material we throw down is criminal,” English told the Mountain Express. “It’s driven by tort law and SUV owners. People would get going in these four-wheel-drive vehicles and then they’d step on the brake and they’d crash and they’d blame the road conditions. You crashed because you were driving too fast for the conditions.”

The corrosive properties of deicers typically used on highways are so severe that the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits their use on airport runways. Instead, airports generally use products based on less-corrosive potassium acetate. It’s also more expensive.

“The FAA is very, very particular about the deicing materials we use,” said Chris Pomeroy, manager of Friedman Memorial Airport, the airport used by many visitors to reach Sun Valley. “It’s really critical that there’s low corrosion of the aircraft.”

Why do salt deciders have such a nasty effect on cars—and planes? Xianming Shi, associate director of the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Transportation in Cold Climates, told the Express that liquid deicers, particularly those with magnesium chloride or calcium chloride, stick better to the undercarriages of cars for the same reason they stick to roads. The liquid deicers can penetrate into tiny spaces, making them more difficult to wash off. In addition, magnesium chloride is “hydroscopic,” meaning that it absorbs moisture from the air. That allows it to remain in liquid form longer. It also increases the risk of metal corrosion.

Streams and wetlands suffer from application of chloride deicers to roads. A 2014 U.S. Geological Survey study found that high concentrations of chloride can be toxic to aquatic vegetation and wildlife. Another USGS study found that chloride concentrations in many northern U.S. streams exceed toxicity levels. The frequency of those occurrences nearly doubled in two decades.

Are there alternatives? Yes, but they cost more. A gallon of potassium acetate, such as is used at airports, costs $7 a gallon, compared to 60 to 70 cents a gallon for magnesium chloride.

“Acetate is 10 times the cost of chlorides, and magnesium chloride is five times the cost of sodium chloride. That’s the short answer for taxpayers,” said English, the president of the chemical company.

Shi, the professor at Washington State, says research is underway to develop better corrosion inhibiters that can be added to deicing products. He said research is focusing on organic materials, generally byproducts of the food industry, including apple pomace, which consists of the skins and other dry materials from apple pressing. His university is filing an application for a patent.

The problem is distilled by Shi, who is the author of an upcoming book on winter transportation. ‘We want to drive faster in the winter, but what’s the hidden cost of that?” he said. “There are so many dimensions to the problem.”

Such promise in the Tetons, then death from heroin OD

JACKSON, Wyo. – Heroin and opioids have not afflicted ski towns the same way they have decaying coal-mining towns in Appalachia. But there are problems.

From Telluride, Colorado, comes a coroner’s determination that a 29-year-old employee of the ski area died of an overdose of heroin and unspecified other drugs. The Telluride Daily Planet says the victim, whose name was not given, had been found in his apartment in Mountain Village, the town next to the slopes of Telluride, on Jan. 20.

In Wyoming and Idaho there is sorrow about the death of 26-year-old Jacob “Jake” Wade. He grew up first in Alta, Utah, and then on both sides of the Teton Range, first in Driggs, Idaho, and then Jackson, Wyoming.

As a child, the outdoors was his playground. He first traversed the Tetons at age 8 and, during his life, stood atop the highest peak, 13,776-foot Grand Teton, three times. He was also a talented freestyle skier who took second in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association freestyle combined competition.

He was also the sort of guy who wanted to give his clothes to the homeless and work at the food bank.

Where did it go wrong? HIs parents tell the Jackson Hole News&Guide’s Kylie Mohr that it began when Wade broke his neck while dong a sunset shoot at Grand Targhee. Surgery was needed for the C4 fracture. Although his body fully recovered physically, he was introduced to extended-release morphine, known as MS-Contin, at the age of 14.

His parents wonder — but don’t know — whether the injury also damaged his brain. What they do say is that after that their son had recurring problems.

“He was a different person after that,” said Dave Wade, his father. “He just was. It’s so hard to describe. He went from being super-motivated to having struggles with depression. It all starts innocently enough, and then it snowballs into something that’s problematic for these folks who have an addictive nature.”

Opioid pills were easy enough to come by at Summit High School in Jackson. During those years and then later he was treated repeatedly. One of his most successful treatments was at a sober-living facility in Boulder, Colorado, called Choice House. But he couldn’t stay there forever.

He eventually landed in Denver, where he remodeled homes while attending a community college. He had a solid relationship with a girlfriend for more than three years.

“I’ve got to emphasize, although he was an addict, most of the time he was clean,” said David Wade. “He really battled it. But he would have slips. Most of the time they’d only last a day or two.”

Last April he almost died from a heroin overdose. He was revived by his girlfriend, who performed CPR, and by paramedics. Doctors told his parents that if he had been found a few minutes later they would have been donating his organs.

In November, as his health declined, he was treated for pneumonia. Two days after being discharged from the hospital he was found dead. The autopsy identified a heroin overdose.

His parents want people to know that addiction is a medical problem, not a moral failing.

“I don’t know how many people said to me, especially when he was younger, ‘He should find something else to get addicted to, like road biking,’” said his mother, Cathleen Imo, a hospice nurse.“ I said, ‘It doesn’t work like that.’”

Deaths come in several ways in ski backcountry

TELLURIDE, Colo. – The lure of Bear Creek is strong for snow riders in Telluride. From the top of the ski mountain, it’s relatively easy to lurch over the ridge and down the big valley, often full of virgin snow, descending to Telluride near the town park where the bluegrass festival is held every June.

But this area adjacent to the ski area can also be dangerous. Avalanches have killed a number of adventurers over the years.

The most recent victim as Gabe Wright, 47, described by the Telluride Daily Planet as a “supremely talented rider renowned for his prowess in the backcountry.”

Investigators think he was snowboarding fast across a slope before clipping a rock hidden beneath a thin sheen of powder. His two companions, who had preceded him down the slope, hiked back up the slope and found his body, performing CPR to no avail. He was wearing a helmet. There was speculation he hit his head on a small log.

Wright had lived in the Telluride area since the 1990s, working as a sushi chef. He had been featured in films and magazines. One filmmaker described him as a “Roman candle in a sea of sparklers.” Another backcountry snowboarder, Judah Kuper, said he was among just a handful of people he had met who radiated “absolute positivity and light.” Wright, he added, “had a smile and stoke that could lift your spirits anytime, anywhere.”

In the Tetons of Wyoming, the circumstances were different but the story told by the Jackson Hole News&Guide is much the same. Alex Marra, 30, decided to leave the relative safety of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort through a backcountry gate to ski Rock Springs Canyon. Apparently, an avalanche ripped out beneath him, leaving a 2-foot-crown, and carrying him 100 feet over a rocky face.

As with Telluride’s Bear Creek Canyon, Rock Springs Canyon has had several deaths through the years.

Jackson Hole opened five backcountry access gates during the 1999-2000 season, each equipped with the day’s avalanche forecast and warning users of potential dangers.

After the 2015-2016 season, the ski area added a backcountry awareness message to those riding the tram with the stern concluding advice: “If you don’t know, don’t go.” Warnings were stepped up at the backcountry gates, too.

Jackson Hole now discourages use of the term “sidecountry,” as some think it implies safety.

Anna Cole, spokeswoman for the ski area operator, said the mountain resort isn’t in the business of policing the exit gates. “We don’t want to make those decisions for them,” she said. “We want to leave it to the users.”

How a possum is like an elephant is like a grizzly

BANFF, Canada – How is a possum like an elephant or wolf? They’re all mammals, of course, but a new study says they’re all far less likely to travel longer distances when confronted with human development.

The study, published in the journal Science, followed 803 individual animals among 57 different species across the globe to see how human development precluded mobility. The researchers concluded the animals cover distances one-third to two-thirds as far as they otherwise would in wild places.

Dr. Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist with Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that it’s the first time data on so many species across the world have been brought together.

That was also the conclusion offered by Dr. Mark Hebblewhite, one of the study’s co-authors and a wildlife biology professor with the University of Montana.

“In some ways our study is unsurprising because it’s predicted completely by the principles of island biogeography theory, which we’ve known about for 40 years. But what’s so striking is that it’s truly this consistent global signature on everything from a possum to an elephant.”

One principle of island biogeography is that the less mixing of wildlife that occurs, the more inbreeding and the greater the chances of extirpation of the species from the isolated islands.

New and larger hostel in the works at Jasper

JASPER, Alberta – A new hostel is planned near Jasper, the town, to replace the one built in 1970.

The new hostel will have 25,000-square-foot in a three-story building that will be able to provide sleeping quarters for up to 157 people. The Jasper Fitzhugh says the new building will also have a fireplace lounge, games room, secured bike and ski storage, plus a small café.

Billionaires chip in on opposite sides of Colorado recall election

DURANGO, Colo. – Do we have a duel of billionaires in southwest Colorado? That’s the allegation in the case of a recall election targeting La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.

The billionaires in question are Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager who has made climate change and the impeachment of Donald Trump his signal issues. On the other side are the Koch Brothers of Wichita.

At the center is Lachelt, who headed an organization that challenges the environmental record of oil and natural gas extraction in the San Juan Basin. The basin, a major source of natural gas, overlaps Colorado and New Mexico. Opponents allege that activism has diverted her from her duties as a commissioner. The Durango Herald found her attendance at formal meetings was just a little less than that of her two colleagues. However, attendance at non-formal meetings is not tracked.

Lachelt’s opponents charge she is being propped up by Steyer. The Herald did trace this money trail: Conservation Colorado has established a campaign called “United Against the Recall,” to aid Lachelt, and it reported $10,000 in donations as of the reporting deadline last week. Conservation Colorado, in turn, netted $280,000 in donations during 2016 from Steyer’s fund, NextGen America.

On the other side are suggestions that the Koch brothers, who own the second largest privately held company in the United States, are behind the recall election.

Charles and David — two of the four brothers — founded Americans for Prosperity, which now has an office in Durango. It aligned with the anti-tax tea party movement during the first years of the Obama presidency. In La Plata County, it is fighting the land-use plan for rural areas. The Herald says the group in the last eight years has focused on smaller communities.

“We’ve got to get to the point where we’re a deeper part of a community, and the left has done that for a lot longer, with a much bigger footprint,” Tim Phillips, the group’s national president, told The Washington Post in 2014.

“I find it alarming that outside agitators funded by the Koch Brothers are actively working to influence public opinion and what happens in our county,” Lachelt told the Herald in January. “What is AFP’s interest in La Plata County? Is it to kill yet another attempt to adopt a new land-use code? Is it to unseat a progressive elected official? Is it both?”

But in Aspen, where billionaires gather, there were handshakes in June 2016. Steyer was a featured speaker at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival. He talked for most of an hour about climate change. At the end, his interviewer asked if he would say anything differently if he knew that David Koch were in the front row.

No, he said, not at all — apparently fully aware that David Koch — a trustee of the Aspen Institute — was indeed in the front row. Afterwards, they shook hands, talked a few minutes and reportedly planned to have coffee.

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