Forecasters warn of potential for similar slides
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Emergency officials say five snowboarders died in a large avalanche near Loveland Pass, in Clear Creek County, Colorado. The avalanche was in the generally north-facing Sheep Creek drainage, which runs down into the Loveland Basin Ski area.
Highway 6 across Loveland Pass was closed Saturday afternoon, with search and rescue and body recovery operations under way.
The avalanche came after heavy spring snows fell across the area the past few weeks, creating more of a mid-winter avalanche hazard in the region.
An automated SNOTEL site in the area measured close to four feet of snow during the past week, and moderate to strong winds created deep slabs of snow prone to breaking loose on weaker layers deeper in the snowpack.
Preliminary information indicates the slide fractured about four-feet deep and may have been 400 to 500 feet wide, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene.
Numerous large avalanches have been reported around the area the past few days. Most recently, a snowboarder died in a slide on Ptarmigan Hill near Vail Pass (April 18).
“It’s obviously a dangerous snowpack and people need to be very, very cautious … there’s been a pattern to it,” said CAIC forecaster Scott Toepfer, adding that the recent pattern of large slides in the area highlights need for caution in the backcountry.
The death toll from the slide is the worst in Colorado from a single avalanche since 1962, when seven people were killed in the Twin Lakes area, in Lake County near the base of Independence Pass.
In 1987, four skiers died on Peak 7 in the Tenmile Range, just outside the Breckenridge Ski Area boundary.
Thousands of people ski the backcountry around Loveland Pass each winter. Much of the terrain is easily accessible from Highway 6. Skiers and snowboarders often do multiple runs, hitchhiking back up the highway from the bottom.
In recent years, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the U.S. Forest Service conducted outreach efforts at the pass to increase avalanche awareness and to assess how many people in the area use avalanche search and rescue gear, including beacons, probes and shovels.
“t’s crushing. I don’t know that it’s a surprise, but I’m devastated. I really feel very, very bad for all the people,” Toepfer said.