Slide danger persists in Summit zone
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” The train of storms sweeping across Colorado and the rest of the Rocky Mountains has brought monthly snow totals to near-record levels in some areas ” and also kept avalanche watchers on their toes.
The snowpack in many mountain areas is tender and prone to triggered and natural releases. Complex layers of wind-formed slab and crusts sitting atop unconsolidated sugar snow are prime ingredients in the recipe for dangerous slides in the backcountry.
Even inbounds terrain that is patrolled and controlled for slides isn’t always immune to the hazard. The Salt Lake City Tribune reported that a skier was killed by a Dec. 23 avalanche in a steep chute at The Canyons Ski Resort in Summit County, Utah.
And earlier this month, a group of skiers at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., reported a narrow escape from a big avalanche on an open, inbounds trail. That slide was documented and reported by Mitch Weber, founder of the Telemark Tips website.
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According to a preliminary report from the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, the inbounds slide involved three people, including a father and son skiing powder in the steep Red Pine chute. The father was able to dig himself out of the slide, but the 11-year-old was completely buried and later uncovered during the search and rescue operation. The man who died suffered extensive trauma from a blow to the back as the slide carried him down the slope and into some trees.
In a follow-up story, the Salt Lake Tribune identified the victim as 30-year-old Jesse Williams of Grand Junction. According to the article, Williams was an experienced skier and a member of the ski patrol in the Grand Junction area.
Inbounds avalanche fatalities have been exceedingly rare. The most recent death before the fatal slide at The Canyons was May 2005 at Arapahoe Basin, in Colorado, when a Boulder man was killed in a wet snow slide on the area’s steep front side. The A-Basin death was the first inbounds avalanche fatality in 30 years.
Both incidents triggered heated online discussions in several ski forums about whether or not there has been a trend toward more post-control inbounds avalanches in recent years.
A number of skiers said they would start wearing avy rescue gear when skiing in slide-prone inbounds terrain, given this season’s widespread deep slab instabilities.
In the Vail and Summit County zone, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is rating the backcountry avalanche danger as considerable on north through east through south aspects above treeline, and moderate on other aspects and elevations. Both ratings suggest that there is the potential for slides, especially via triggered releases of unstable layers.
Observers reported a natural slide on a south-facing slope near Loveland Pass earlier this week. According to the CAIC’s online forecast, the snowpack is variable across the local mountains. In some locations, it can support a skier on top, in other spots, observers report crashing to the ground through layers of sugary depth hoar.
In a Dec. 23 bulletin, the CAIC reported three soft slab avalanches running at treeline on south-facing slopes, with “weather conditions conspiring to build a weak foundation across this zone.”
Last week, a skier near Vail triggered a four-foot deep slab on an north-east facing slope just below treeline. The CAIC previously reported that areas just east of Vail, toward Vail Pass, have seen a particularly active avalanche cycle recently.
More light to moderate snow is in the forecast through the weekend, so the avalanche hazard isn’t likely to diminish anytime soon.
Check in with the avalanche hotline (970) 668-0600 for the latest conditions, or visit the CAIC web site at http://avalanche.state.co.us/.
For links to other articles and discussion threads on inbounds slides, check out the web version of this story at http://www.summitdaily.com.
The Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center’s report on the deadly slide, including photos, is online at http://www.avalanche.org/~uac/Accidents/Accidents,07-08/12-24-07,%20Canyons%20Accident,%20Lees-Kobernik/12-23-07,%20Canyons%20Accident,%20Lees-Kobernik.htm
For a story on the inbounds slide at Mammoth Mountain, check out this link: http://www.telemarktips.com/FSneverSame.html.
For an online discussion of the Utah slide, go to http://www.telemarktalk.com/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=40898.
The Deseret News also published a detailed story on the slide, and the ensuing comments touch on questions of skier v. ski resort liability, as well as funding for ski patrols at resorts. Check it out at the following link: http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,5143,695238731,00.html.
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