Summit’s backcountry: The deadliest no longer?
February 9, 2008
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Colorado’s Playground has given up the dubious distinction of leading Colorado counties in avalanche deaths.
As of the end of the 2006-2007 season, Pitkin County tallied 37 deaths, passing Summit County (36 deaths) by one, counting back to 1950. Clear Creek County ranks third, with 23 deaths, followed by Gunnision County, 17 deaths.
Colorado remains by far the deadliest state in terms of snowslides, with 216 deaths since 1950. Alaska is second, with 118 deaths, and Utah ranks third, with 88 deaths.
“it’s a good statistic for us to lose. But I don’t think it’s going to last,” said Dan Burnett, a Summit County Rescue Group veteran who has helped dig out his share of bodies from icy tombs.
Leaving statistics aside, Burnett often talks about the subject in terms of the human cost. The emotional impact of an avalanche death on friends and families left behind.
The potential danger faced by rescue volunteers, who must decide whether to place themselves in harm’s way to search for a buried victim. These are factors that can’t be plotted on a graph or counted up in dollars. They are measured by tears, heartbreak and pain.
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“The mountain rescue community feels it’s miraculous that we haven’t had a deadly slide yet in Summit County this winter. It’s not that people are getting smarter,” Burnett said. The fact that days with the highest avalanche danger have coincided with bad weather may play a role, Burnett speculated.
“People like to die on beautiful days,” he said.
There are some significant differences between the two counties. Summit has more than 25,000 residents. Waves of weekend warriors roll in to ski at local resorts literally by the millions.
Pitkin County has about 15,000 residents, and the four ski areas together tally about as many seasonal visitors as one of Summit’s mega-resorts.
Despite those demographic contrasts, avalanche experts around Colorado see the avy death number as a statistical blip.
More important is the hazard that exists in the mountains of each county, said Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) director Ethan Green.
“There is a lot of recreational use in both areas. And both areas have the potential for big, bad slides,” Green said. “That one-number difference is not that important over time, he said, adding that, so far this season, neither county has seen a avalanche death.
“It’s more noteworthy that Aspen and Summit have a similar snowpack,” said CAIC forecaster John Snook, explainining the two areas see different storm patterns ” smaller but more numerous dumps ” than the San Juan or Steamboat areas. The scattered snowfalls tend to build a complex snowpack, with variable layers prone to shearing. By contrast, the thicker layers in the San Juan and Steamboat zones build up a snowpack that is generally more stable.
As for Pitkin County passing Summit, Snook said bigger vertical lines and alpine-type terrain in the rugged Elk Mountains may play a role. The Aspen area is also a hotbed for aggressive mountaineering activity. That may also be a factor, he said.
“Things change in different years,” said former CAIC forecaster Nick Logan. “It could just be the luck of the draw ” who is out there and when.”
A big slide in the local hills with a couple of deaths would put Summit back in the unenviable position once again of having the most avalanche fatalities, he said.
Aspen-area avalanche forecaster Brian McCall has also been examining the avalanche statistics from the past few years. One thing he’s seen is an increase in the number avalanche deaths stemming from what he call “top-down touring.”
Using resort lifts to gain vertical and set out to for the backcountry via national forest access points is growing in popularity, McCall said.
“It’s something I’ve been working on, education-wise,” McCall said. Lift-served access makes gaining vertical easier, but snow riders may be not be getting the same picture of the snowpack that they would from climbing through the terrain they’ll later be making turns on, he said.
Since the late 1980s, the two counties have markedly different ways of regulating access to national forest backcountry from lift-served resorts. After a slide killed four people on Peak 7 in Breckenridge (outside the ski area boundary at the time), Summit County authorities restricted access by enforcing closures around most of Summit County’s ski areas.
In contrast, the Pitkin County ski areas generally have an open-boundary policy. Skiers and snowboarders are encouraged to use formal access points marked with the customary warning signs, but those who choose to duck ropes aren’t pursued and prosecuted, as is the practice in Summit County.
McCall said he favors the Pitkin County approach to boundary management, but acknowledged that Summit County’s strict approach may have helped limit the number of fatalities associated with lift-served backcountry access at ski areas like Breckenridge and Copper, where there is plenty of avalanche-prone terrain within spitting distance of the ski lifts.
“That ropeline doesn’t look like much, but represents a real boundary,” Green concluded.