Vail, Summit County snowboarders facing criminal charges, $168,000 in restitution for avalanche incident

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Avalanche debris on W. Loop road on March 25, 2020.
Special to the Daily

In matters of the law, it’s true that anything you say can and will be used against you.

But in submitting his GoPro footage to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in March, Vail resident Evan Hannibal said he wasn’t expecting his comments in the video to help establish a case against him resulting in a reckless endangerment charge and a potential $168,000 in restitution.

Hannibal was snowboarding with Summit County resident Tyler DeWitt on the west side of the Continental Divide on March 25 in the White River National Forest above the Eisenhower Tunnel.

DeWitt said when they reached the area they wanted to ride, he tried to release a small slab, but ended up seeing a much bigger reaction than the pair was expecting.

“I was trying to release the small wind-drifted slab that had been releasing naturally along this wall throughout the day,” DeWitt said. “I wanted this to slide before I was in the choke and still on shallow snow.”

Releasing the small slab led to a large avalanche. Hannibal and DeWitt watched it happen, then made their way down the avalanche debris to the bottom of the slope and called the incident into the authorities, giving statements to the Summit County Sheriff’s Department.

Big slide

Brian Metzger, a special operations technician with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, responded to the incident.

In his report, Metzger estimated that debris covering Loop Road above Eisenhower Tunnel was 20 feet deep in places.

“The debris on the road was deep enough to have trapped and or completely buried a vehicle,” Metzger wrote in the report.

Metzger said CDOT notified him that the avalanche control system had been destroyed.

“The two snowboarders were on the slope above the O’bellx system and triggered the avalanche which destroyed the system as it came down,” Metzger noted in the report.

A couple of weeks after the incident, Metzger contacted the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and received a copy of their report, along with Hannibal’s GoPro footage, which he had submitted.

Metzger received the GoPro footage on April 6 and reviewed the footage.

“Throughout the video there are several comments made about areas of concern,” Metzger wrote in the report. “The pair were clearly worried about avalanche conditions but proceeded down the path anyway. After the avalanche was triggered there was a comment made about how he hoped there was no one on the road. There was also a comment made about being in trouble if the cops show up.”

Metzger attempted to contact Hannibal and DeWitt on the same day he reviewed the footage to issue them summonses for reckless endangerment. They were issued summonses on April 8.

Expensive equipment

Saying the new equipment will help prevent avalanches from reaching large sizes, CDOT invested in 15 new O’bellx avalanche control systems in 2019.

The devices cost $120,000 apiece, plus installation.

In receiving a citation for reckless endangerment, Hannibal and DeWitt can also be ordered to pay restitution for the destruction of the O’bellx explosion chamber.

Hannibal said if the area he was snowboarding would have been clearly marked with no trespass signs, or indicators that expensive equipment was being used in that area of the national forest, he would not have been there.

“Any time you trigger a slide large enough to bury a road you made a mistake,” he said. “Clearly, we made a mistake. But this is not the only area in Colorado where people have snowboarded with a road nearby that has the potential to be buried should a slide occur, and I’ve never heard of anyone receiving a criminal penalty for making a mistake like this.”

Hannibal says the restitution is heavy-handed, considering the equipment is new, was not well marked, and some learning may still need to be done in order to best understand the state’s new avalanche control system.

“If the system is designed to prevent large avalanches, it certainly hadn’t in that case,” he said.

The O’bellx system was touted a way for CDOT to perform more frequent detonations, resulting in lower avalanche risks.

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