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Colorado: Forest Service to review ski area avalanches

Director of National Avalanche Center sees trend of more inbounds and sidecountry accidents

Colorado avalanche Copper Mountain

A spring wet snow avalanche in the Tenmile Range near Copper Mountain, Colorado.

The avalanche danger in the Colorado backcountry is still rated as considerable, with triggered slides likely in many areas.

By Bob Berwyn

VAIL — A U.S. Forest Service review of two recent inbounds avalanche deaths at Colorado ski areas will be aimed at determining whether the resorts followed all required snow safety procedures required under their permits, and whether any changes are needed, according to Eagle/Holy Cross district ranger Dave Neely.

Christopher Norris, 28, of Evergreen was killed by a slide Sunday afternoon (Jan. 22) on the Mary Jane side of Winter Park Resort, and 13-year-old Taft Conlin of Eagle died the same day in avalanche on a closed slope at Vail Mountain.

“It’s our responsibility to oversee the operations of ski areas on public lands,” said Ken Kowynia, the agency’s winter sports program administrator in the Rocky Mountain region.

After expressing condolences to the families of the skiers who died, Kowynia said, “When we have a serious incident our protocol is to do a review of ski area operations and the response to the incident … to see if there’s anything we can learn from this or anything we need to consider changing in response.”

The review is being done in collaboration with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the resorts, said Kowynia, who visited the Winter Park avalanche site Tuesday and plans to go to Vail Wednesday.

Kowynia said that, from what he’s heard so far, the incident at Vail was a “straightforward event,” involving a skier disregarding a posted closure. He praised the ski patrol response.

“They responded with great skill and did a remarkable job finding him … and they should be commended for doing so,” Kowynia said.

The Vail ski patrol was working under difficult conditions Sunday, and again on Monday, with mass violations of closures on various parts of the mountain, according to a source familiar with the ongoing review of the accident. At one point on Monday, ski patrollers were reporting up to 60 simultaneous violations of closures in Siberia Bowl.

Kowynia said that, in order to remain safe while skiing at a resort, visitors do need to respect closures and other signage.

The slide at Vail was on the upper part of Prima Cornice, which hadn’t been opened at all yet this season, according to Scott Toepfer, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center who visited the site Monday to compile a report.

Toepfer said the slide was about 200-feet wide and ran about 400 vertical feet in complex terrain, with the fracture line at the crown of the avalanche breaking about 18 inches to as deep as 36 inches in spots. In some places the avalanche ran all the way to the ground or on a hard layer very close to the ground.

More frequent inbounds avalanche incidents

Similar Forest Service reviews were conducted following other recent avalanche deaths at ski areas, which have been increasing in recent years, according to Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Idaho.

Last winter, the director of the Wolf Creek ski patrol died in an avalanche at the San Juan ski area during an avalanche control mission. A Jackson Hole ski patroller died from injuries suffered in a Jan. 2010 slide and a Boulder man died inbounds at A-Basin in 2005. There have been several other inbounds and sidecountry ski area avalanche deaths in Utah in the past few years.

Abromeit said that, while the chances of a skier or snowboarder dying in a slide within the boundaries of a resort remain miniscule, the ski industry is aware of the trend. Last week’s meeting of the National Ski Areas Association included some discussion of inbounds and sidecountry avalanche safety, he said, adding that ski resort snow safety experts do a phenomenal job of controlling the avalanche risk, working with what is essentially an inexact science.

“It definitely jumps out at me … it’s definitely atypical. There’s no denying the number of fatalities within ski area boundaries is on the rise. It’s on every snow safety director’s radar,” Abromeit said.

“There’s a very elevated level of awareness about this among snow safety pros because of the new fat skis,” he said, referring to the fact that modern equipment has made it much easier for skiers to maneuver in avalanche-prone terrain.

Abromeit said the cluster of accidents could partially be attributed to pent-up powder demand.

“Up until the last few days, people couldn’t get off the man-made snow runs. Then it snowed. All of a sudden, dealing with the mountain was almost like dealing with the backcountry,” he said.

“It’s a perfect storm scenario … and there have been several reactions. One of them is, at the NSAA meeting, there was discussion of, how do we deal with this?” he said.

One area the industry is looking at is how to more efficiently mitigate avalanche risks with the use of explosives. To that end, a Montana State University professor is studying the effectiveness of different types of blasts and the placement of explosives, Abromeit said, explaining that those efforts might be one of the most recent significant developments in the snow safety field.

Additionally, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center will talk with snow safety directors at Colorado ski areas about what’s working and what’s not working in terms of avalanche control and risk managent, Abromeit added.

“What it all boils down to is, it’s an imperfect science. There’s a lot of spatial variability. Ski patrollers can reduce the risk, but they can’t eliminate it,” he said.

As skiers use the new gear to access inbounds terrain that was nearly inaccessible just a few year ago, they should consider the fact that, even inbounds, off-piste conditions can prevail. Along with avalanches, powder-seeking tree skiers face a “non-avalanche immersion threat,” he said, referring to the increased numbers of tree-well deaths, when skiers or boarders are simply trapped and suffocate in deep, dense snow.

The accidents make it clear that avalanche hazards can be reduced but not completely eliminated, said American Avalanche Association president Dale Atkins, a former forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“To have two deaths within a ski area is pretty exceptional,” Atkins said. “Safety is an illusion in the mountains. Even though the ski areas do a phenomenal job, and people who are educated have a wonderful time, you’re dealing with Mother Nature. We’re managing risk to reduce the threat.”

Reaching a higher level of safety — especially with regard to inbounds threats — ultimately will require a change in attitudes, with skiers and riders taking responsibility for their safety.

“You don’t see people sneaking around closed signs on highways,” Atkins said, suggesting that many recreational skiers tend to take potential risks at ski areas lightly.

“All of us have our favorite stash in the ski areas, but generally they start getting skied in November. This year, there hasn’t been any ski traffic in those spots through the middle of January,” he said, explaining that the normal compaction process that helps stabilize the snowpack in off-piste areas wasn’t happening this season.

“This year that snow has been on the ground for two or three months, just getting more and more rotten.”

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5 Responses

  1. With all the advance warnings, one has to question the mindset of the known violators on the closed slopes. To take the chance by putting ones life on the line for the thrill, either means that the education isn’t getting through or those individuals just don’t respect the rules. Playing that game of “Russian Roulette” with ones life today, is just plain dumb.

  2. I don’t ski at Vail very often but over the years I have noticed a consistent disregard for ski run closures there. It’s common to see tracks where people ducked under ropes on closed runs, especially in the Back Bowls. I don’t know whether it’s a cultural thing there or an attitude that the ski area is so big that patrol isn’t going to catch them. Yet I’ve known a number of people who have been busted for violating closures, and their punishment is to go to skier safety class. Vail has a lot of issues to look at when they evaluate this tragic accident.

    • It’s probably a combination of understaffed ski patrol, which means people are frustrated that terrain isn’t open; a general attitude of “this is MY mountain,” an overall coarsening of civilization and culture and just general rudeness and inconsideration.

  3. Just a thought . . . We live in the Peak 7 subdivision. The explosions from avalanche control within the ski area rattle our light fixtures and cause enough vibration to our floors to cause the books in our bookcase to work their way off the edge of the shelves. We’re about a mile “as the crow flies” from the nearest run on Peak 7. So here’s my question. If the vibrations from the avalanche-control explosions affect our house a mile away from the source, is it possible that the adhesion of snow particles on non-targeted slopes that are much closer to the sites of the explosions is being unnaturally weakened, thus increasing the avalanche danger both inbounds and out of bounds without any visible surface signs?

    • Good question … there are so many factors, it would be hard to pinpoint whether the shock/vibrations from avy control work at the ski area affects the snowpack elsewhere. It’s possible that it’s one of many factors. I’ve seen a natural avalanche start when a single cloud covered the sun for a minute and changed the air temperature and I’ve heard of sonic booms setting off slides.

      it’s possible that a distant blast could loosen a slab, making it more susceptible to some other trigger, but all in all, it would be a minor factor in the bigger scheme of wind, fresh snow, etc.

      I say that because, in most cases, the explosives have to be very close to the snow to trigger a slide — about 2 to 3 feet above the snow is optimal in most cases.

      But it’s all worth thinking about.

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