‘This is not Disneyland’
February 9, 2008
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Avalanche forecasters around Colorado are warily eying the backcountry snowpack, concerned that warming temperatures and clearing skies could lead to a spike in serious accidents in the coming weeks.
February historically sees the highest number of avalanche deaths, based on statistics dating to 1950. And this winter’s steady snows have built a tender snowpack that is prone to big slides.
“I’m walking on eggshells,” said Ethan Green, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). “The avalanches we’re seeing are getting bigger and bigger. It’s amazing more people haven’t been killed.”
So far this season, five people have died in avalanches, one less than the annual average of six. Around the country, 23 people have died since mid-December, surpassing last year’s total and leading to concerns that there could a record number of deaths this winter.
With the current conditions, Green said backcountry snow riders can expect to see avalanches that haven’t slid in a long time. And even frequent slidepaths will run bigger and longer than anytime in recent memory.
Some experts are especially concerned about a sudden rise in the number of accidents among out-of-area riders ” skiers and snowboarders who use lifts to access high country terrain.
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“You have to go back a whole generation, to the 1980s, to find out-of-area accidents,” said former CAIC forecaster Dale Atkins. “Now, suddenly again, one-third of all accidents are out-of-area skiers.”
Aspen-based forecaster Brian McCall said he’s noticed the same trend, with about seven or eight fatalities in recent seasons tied to lift-served backcountry access.
“If you look at the stats as a whole or on a curve, out-of-bounds fatalities is going to be a rising number. It’s something new for avalanche educators,” McCall concluded.
“This is the kind of winter when even experienced people can get in trouble,” Atkins continued. “This is a winter full of exceptions. And even people who have been here and skiing in the backcountry for 10 or 15 years haven’t seen these exceptions.”
Big and dangerous slides can run in Summit County’s mountains anytime, at least when there is snow on the ground. But some of the most notable slides have been in February, including the Peak 7 avalanche that killed four people in 1987, and a huge natural release on Buffalo Mountain the cleared swaths of forest still visible as scars today. Around that same time, a massive avalanche ran on the Professor slide path, crossing Highway 6 and slamming into Arapahoe Basin’s parking lot and base area.
“It’s the culmination of big snow, layers building up and people going everywhere,” Atkins said.
McCall said he expects the danger rating to remain high across most of the state, and said the danger could climb even higher with a warm-up.
“There could be slides on every aspect and at any elevation,” McCall said. Even south-facing slopes have a deep enough snowpack that deep slab instability is a concern this winter. “Every aspect and elevation has distinct snowpack characteristics, which means you’re dealing with a different set of avalanche conditions.
“We’re all thinking the same thing,” McCall said. “You’re going to see stuff you’ve not seen before.”
A number of inbounds slides around the West is another testament to this season’s tricky snowpack,” McCall said.
“The main message should be, stay inbounds. The skiing is so excellent,” said Patti Burnett, a rescue dog handler who has participated in many grim searches and body recovery efforts over the years.
Burnett said she’s recently spoken with a number of people headed out of bounds who paid attention to classic warning signs like settling snow and shooting cracks and altered their backcountry plans.
It’s even possible to ride in the backcountry safely, said former CAIC forecaster Nick Logan. The key is to choose safe routes and stay out of terrain traps and run-out zones. Riding slopes around 30 degrees steep still makes for good turns, but generally limits the avalanche hazard, he said.
Logan, who also patrolled at Breckenridge for many years, said he’s seen avalanche awareness grow.
“But that awareness has to be tied in with responsibily,” he said, repeating the mantra of avoidance. “How are people using that awareness to make decisions in the backcountry,” Logan said.
“It’s much easier to avoid an avalanche than to try and rescue your buried friend,” Logan said. “This is reality. It’s not Disneyland. You have to go mentally equipped.”
In February, the snowpack reaches that critical balance between weakness and strength, Logan said.
“Then things start to mellow out. You get to the other side of that Bell curve,” he said.