Year of the avalanche: Top 10 news stories of 2019
FRISCO — News of the Buffalo Mountain wildfire dominated headlines throughout the summer of 2018 when a 91-acre blaze swept down the mountain to within feet of nearby neighborhoods in Silverthorne. In 2019, Mother Nature again took the prize, but instead of burning forests, it buried them in snow.
Over the course of the 2018-19 season, Colorado recorded 4,273 avalanches with 478 in the Vail and Summit County region. In early March 2019, a series of massive avalanches — historic in proportion compared to anything seen in recent memory — ripped across the state, shutting down highways, changing the landscape, closing area ski resorts and even burying cars on the road.
Looking back over the past 70 years, it’s clear that the trend of heightened danger around the state isn’t a recent phenomenon, and the events of 2019 showcased the phenomenal power of the avalanche. The following stories received the most views on summitdaily.com over the past year.
On March 3, a man traveling on I-70 through Summit County captured one of the powerful avalanches that month on his smartphone, and the video and accompanying story captured the attention of the nation. Brandon Ciullo was on his way to Glenwood Springs when he saw an avalanche rip through Tenmile Canyon between Frisco and Copper Mountain. In the video, cars can be seen slowing down to a standstill as snow rips across the interstate in front of them.
On March 7, Frisco residents woke up to a changed view after a massive avalanche near the J Chute — just off of Rainbow Lake — tore through the landscape, stripping trees and leaving a gigantic white scar on the side of the peak.
“The trees that are gone were full-sized lodgepoles,” said Kathryn Grohusky, a Frisco resident who saw the damage from the avalanche from her home Thursday morning. “The avalanche debris is really deep, it came down the hill and took the trees out. The path is a ski run wide.”
When asked if she’d ever seen anything similar in her 20-plus years of living in Frisco, the answer was clear: “Nope.”
The second story in our top 10 also includes a winter video, but this time with arguably one of Summit County’s most photographed animal when it makes an appearance — the area moose. Local photographer Lauren “Lo” Drogsvold was hoping to warn visitors to the area how dangerous the beasts can be when she released the video taken at Breckenridge Ski Resort in January 2019.
A large bull moose hanging out on one of the ski runs had drawn a large crowd of oglers before he quickly changed his tune. The moose began to approach the crowd, so Drogsvold hit record on her cell phone as she urged people to begin skiing away.
With her phone still recording, Drogsvold captured only a few seconds of the moose chasing skiers and snowboarders before she dove off the trail and hid behind a nearby tree. She said in January that no one appeared to suffer any injuries when the moose charged the crowd, but she knows that some of those people in the pack did not react to seeing a moose the right way.
“We’re familiar with the dangers of moose, and I feel like, as a local, it’s our responsibility to try to educate people about moose and keep them safe if we can,” she said, explaining that was her reason for editing the short video clips she got, posting them on social media and then agreeing to talk to the newspaper. “If you see a moose, you don’t walk up to it, you don’t approach it. You get the hell away from there and leave them alone.”
During the series of massive March avalanches, one that slid across Colorado Highway 91 near Copper Mountain trapped four cars underneath the snow. At least one vehicle was turned completely upside down and totally buried, but the driver was extricated and no injuries were reported. The avalanche covered about 300 feet of the roadway, with snow about 15 feet deep.
The Colorado Department of Transportation said that it was the first ever recorded avalanche on Resolute Cliff, an area where CDOT has never performed mitigation work.
4. ‘Historic’ and dangerous winter conditions close Summit County’s highways, ski resorts and schools
In another story on the March avalanches, extreme weather conditions on the 7th caused multiple highway, road and school closures, power outages and delayed bus routes. An avalanche near the Conoco in Copper Mountain ruptured a natural gas line, and Copper Mountain Resort announced a delayed opening.
On that day the Colorado Avalanche Information Center declared “historic” avalanche conditions, raising danger levels to “Extreme” (5 out of 5) for four different backcountry zones for the first time since it started using the 10-zone forecasting system. The CAIC warned everyone to stay out of avalanche terrain, as every single inch of it was considered hazardous.
On March 13, a 62-year-old male skier was found unconscious in the trees on the edge of a ski run at Copper Mountain Resort. David Gissel of Colorado Springs was transported to St. Anthony Copper Medical Clinic, where he was later pronounced dead. Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said that the manner of death was natural, and that Gissel passed away due to acute heart failure.
A 15-foot wooden trail troll brought more contention to Summit County than town officials ever bargained for when he was installed next to the Wellington neighborhood in Breckenridge. In a battle played out on social media and in council meetings, Isak Heartstone drew the ire of nearby residents as visitors flocked to the area to see the display.
The beloved troll was beheaded then dismantled in November 2018, with parts of him placed in storage, after town council decided his popularity had created a safety hazard. The public outrage on social media and across media outlets prompted his return, and in the summer of 2019, many of those online commenters saw their wish come true.
Artist Thomas Dambo reimagined the troll — using its original head, heart, hands and feet — and rebuilt it in May 2019 in a new location near the Stephen C. West Ice Arena and Illinois Gulch trailhead.
“Its popularity was beyond all exceptions,” Breckenridge town manager Rick Holman said. “That’s why we felt it was important to bring it back.”
The Blue River in Breckenridge turned a shocking color in April, with its water going from a natural blue-green hue to a bright, burnt orange within a few hours. Emergency officials believed the discoloration to be runoff from an area above Illinois Gulch known to cause similar discoloration in the past.
After investigating, fire officials determined that the runoff came from a mine located on private property at the corner of Boreas Pass Road and Bright Hope Circle. The water runoff at the source appeared as a thick, muddy orange stream with no obvious unique odor or taste. Fire officials said that the location has been the source of orange mine runoffs in the past.
A similar event in 2006 was caused by runoff from a mine in the same general location. The orange spill continued for several days, carrying with it high levels of toxic heavy metals. The incident resulted in the mass death of many fish in the Blue River.
On Aug. 30, Summit County residents Benjamin Mitton and Nichole Gough were killed after a suspected drunken driver veered into the wrong lane, causing a head-on collision. Lindsey Leigh Ward, 31, was arrested and formerly charged on Sept. 5 with two counts of vehicular homicide-DUI and two counts of vehicular homicide-reckless driving.
According to the affidavit, multiple witnesses on scene stated they saw a white Subaru, Ward’s vehicle, driving southbound before losing control and hitting the other car heading northbound. Ward’s vehicle continued a little further south before going down a steep embankment.
Ward has a court hearing on Jan. 15, 2020.
9. Arapahoe Basin Ski Area to re-open Saturday after closure Thursday, Friday due to dangerous conditions
An overnight snowstorm in March — the same day that avalanches caused power outages and closed highways across the county — wreaked havoc across the county’s ski resorts as well.
Breckenridge Ski Resort announced shortly before usual opening time that its upper mountain lifts and terrain would be closed for the day due to avalanche danger. It later added that lower-mountain lifts would be delayed past the scheduled 8:30 a.m. opening.
Up at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth announced on his blog just after 8 a.m. that the ski area would not open at all for the day due to extreme avalanche concerns. Copper Mountain Resort was on a delayed opening after an avalanche near the Conoco in Copper Mountain ruptured a natural gas line. Keystone Resort was open but running on limited lifts in the morning.
With avalanche danger so extreme, Arapahoe Basin did not open at all the next day either.
10. Breckenridge Ski Resort investigating inbounds avalanche near Imperial Chair; no injuries reported
An inbounds avalanche occurred at Breckenridge Ski Resort on the afternoon of March 8, a day after weather and dangerous avalanche conditions delayed resort openings and caused power outages and road closures. The avalanche slid on an expert-rated trail off the Imperial Express SuperChair, which was open at the time.
Ryan Zabik and George Micah Woods, both from Michigan, were caught in the slide. The pair were traversing from the top of the Imperial Express SuperChair, North America’s highest lift, to their desired above-tree line ski terrain destination: Whale’s Tail.
“My eyes were closed and I was just along for the ride,” Woods said. “I knew that I felt snow in places I shouldn’t have felt along the way. It was after the snow actually was coming over me that it dawned (this was an avalanche).”
A total of five guests were involved in the slide and luckily none were injured or required rescue.
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