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Skiing: Backcountry snowpack touchy in Colorado

Monthly Breckenridge ski patrol talk to focus on backcountry travel techniques and terrain choices

There's plenty of good backcountry powder skiing in Summit County, but it's best to stay on low-angle terrain right now, like this 28-degree slope on Baldy, Photo courtesy Matt Krane.

There’s plenty of good backcountry powder skiing in Summit County, but it’s best to stay on low-angle terrain right now, like this 28-degree slope on Baldy, Photo courtesy Matt Krane.

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CAIC forecaster Tim Brown examines the crown face of a large avalanche in Montezuma Bowl, at Arapahoe Basin. Photo courtesy CAIC.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With forecasters warily eying backcountry avalanche hazards and more snow on the way this week, Breckenridge ski patrollers will focus on safe backcountry travel techniques, route-finding and terrain selection during their monthly talk this Thursday evening (Village at Breckenridge, Tenmile Room, 6 p.m.).

The topic is especially timely following recent close calls and a cycle of natural slides in the backcountry, said Breckenridge ski patroller Matt Krane. Last week, a party of four backcountry travelers were involved with a sizable slide on Peak 6. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

Avalanche kills skier in Colorado backcountry

Two skiers involved in a triggered slide on Mt. Trelease in Clear Creek County

The avalanche danger has been rated moderate on most slopes in the backcountry. Click on the image to learn more about the new rating scale in use this winter.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The early season snowpack in Colorado proved deadly for a second time, as a backcountry skier died after being buried several feet deep in an avalanche on Mt. Trelease, north of I-70 in Clear Creek County.

According to the Alpine Rescue Team, the slide was about 400 feet wide and ran about 200 yards down the mountain. The victim, 32-year-old Kyle Shellberg, of Golden, was uncovered by his partner, who attempted CPR on the scene.

In a short bulletin on the slide, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported that the victim may have been carried through a forested area by the slide. CAIC staff will visit the accident site Dec. 6 and post a full report on the center’s accident page.

The accident marks the second deadly avalanche of the season. Wolf Creek ski patrol director Scott Kay died Nov. 22 in a slide while doing avalanche control work in the ski area before opening the terrain for the public.

The second avalanche death of this season occurred Nov. 27 in Utah, when a snowmobiler died in the Uintas. Last winter there were 36 avalanche deaths across the country, including seven in Colorado.

The avalanche danger across much of the northern Colorado mountains has been rated as moderate the past few days, indicating a chance for triggered slides. Specifically, forecasters had been warning of isolated wind slabs on easterly aspects near treeline.

Ski patroller was wearing Avalung when killed by slide

A skier deploys an avalanche probe, used to pinpoint buried victims, during the annual Beacon Bowl event at Arapahoe Basin.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center releases technical report on  Wolf Creek avalanche fatality; OSHA to determine whether patrol director Scott Kay was exposed to unacceptable risks

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Wolf Creek ski patrol director Scott Kay was wearing an Avalung breathing device when he was killed by a soft snow avalanche on Nov. 22, but was not able to deploy the Avalung before he was buried, according to a technical report posted by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. According to the CAIC report, the mouthpiece was still secured in the shoulder pack of the harness when Kay was uncovered by rescue workers.

The Avalung is intended to enable buried avalanche victims to breathe while trapped under the snow. Many avalanche victims die of asphyxiation, either when snow and ice fill their nose and mouth, or sometimes when an ice mask forms from condensation, blocking the flow of air.

According to the CAIC report, the area of the slide had a variable snow depth ranging from boulders in some spots, with up to two to three feet of snow on the ground in other areas. The avalanche ran on a firm melt-freeze ice crust that formed on top of snow that fell in October. The crown face, where the slide broke away from the surrounding snowpack, ranged from three inches to three feet deep. The area had received 16 inches of new snow in the 24 hours before the avalanche, with strong southwest winds blowing during the storm. The slide was on a 45-degree, northeast-facing slope at an elevation of 11,600 feet. Continue reading

Avy experts target sidecountry safety programs

A view looking down from the top of the first Steep Gully, a popular sidecountry area near A-Basin where a snowboarder died in avalanche last winter. Highway 6 is visible far below. PHOTO COURTESY CAIC.

13 people have died in Colorado sidecountry avalanches in the past 10 years

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Colorado Avalanche Information Center wants to partner with ski areas in the state to raise awareness about avalanche hazards in the sidecountry — areas close to resorts that are easily accessed via lifts but not subject to avalanche control work.

Of the 60 avalanche deaths in Colorado in the past 10 years, 13 have been in the sidecountry, according to CAIC director Ethan Greene.

Greene said it’s important to remember that, from a snow-safety perspective, there is no difference between sidecountry and backcountry. Avalanche experts and ski patrollers use the term to define areas by human behavior patterns, geographic locations and accessibility, but there is no avalanche control in those “sidecountry” areas. Continue reading

Dust storms implicated in Colorado avalanches

‘… A massive shift in the amount of energy being absorbed by the snow’

 

Pockets of dust and wind-pitted snow are evident in this spring scene at Loveland Pass.

 

 

University of Utah Snow Optics Laboratory graduate students, Annie Bryant and McKenzie Skiles, collect dust-in-snow samples at Swamp Angel Study Plot.

 

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Desert dust blowing on to the high peaks of Colorado is affecting stream flows and even changing tundra vegetation — and now it’s been traced as a cause of avalanches in the high country, researcher Chris Landry said Friday, addressing a packed house at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop.

Scientists have measured a significant increase in the number of dust-on-snow episodes in recent years. They’ve tracked the dust to it sources  in the Southwest, where dry weather and disturbance to desert soils, including off-road use, agriculture and energy development have all been tabbed as contributing factors. Continue reading

Avalanche pros pow-wow at Leadville workshop

A huge turnout at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Leadville.

Communication, organization the key to successful rescues; smart phone technology helping pinpoint victims in some recent missions

By Bob Berwyn

LEADVILLE — Good organization and communication are the keys to successful avalanche rescues, experts said Friday morning during the first few presentations at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, discussing a couple of recent missions as case studies.

Summit County search and rescue veterans Dan Burnett and Aaron Parment said a series of linked decisions last May during a tricky rescue on Peak One, high above Frisco, enabled the rescue teams to move an injured snowboarder to a spot where a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter could ultimate evacuate him just before darkness.

Even though it was too windy earlier in the day for a helicopter rescue, mission coordinators stayed in touch with the choppers. When the wind died right around sunset, all the pieces were in place for a quick airlift, Burnett said.

The avalanche happened about three miles into the backcountry, and the rescue teams had to carefully evaluate the spring snow conditions to decide how best to reach the snowboarder, who suffered an open tib-fib fracture in the snow slide. In spring weather, the snow often can’t support the weight of snowmobiles, but quick temperature measurements near the staging area helped the teams decide that they could advance at least part way up the mountain with the help of the snowmobiles. Continue reading

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