Deadly slide in the Steep Gullies may have run on an icy crust that formed last October, experts say
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Experts from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center visited the site of a deadly slide in the backcountry west of Arapahoe Basin, but couldn’t get close to starting zone because of lingering avalanche danger in the area.
Daniel Michelotti, a 20-year-old snowboarder from Spring Grove, Ill. was killed March 10 after he triggered a slide in what’s known as the First Steep Gully, one of a series of narrow, rock-lined avalanche chutes commonly accessed by leaving A-Basin ski area through an access point to reach adjacent national forest lands.
Slides in that area have killed a number of backcountry skiers dating back to the 1980s, said Scott Toepfer. A handful of other skier and snowboarder-triggered slides have been reported from the Summit-Vail area in the past three days.
“It looks like it failed on an early winter hard layer, maybe dating all the way back to October. It failed to the ground,” Toepfer said. “It’s kind of what we’re expecting on those northwest slopes … around those rocks it’s just a depth hoar factory,” he said, referring to a combination of weather factors that results in the formation of large, loose faceted grains of snow that don’t stick together.
Toepfer and other forecasters have been characterizing the snowpack as “reactive,” meaning it gives way easily under the weight of skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers.
Toepfer said there were avalanches in the adjacent gullies right around the same time Michelotti was swept down about 1,000 feet over jagged cliffs and into a clump of trees at the bottom. The slide ran with enough force to snap six-inch-thick trees in the path.
Michelotti was found by his two companions pinned nearly upside-down and wedged against some trees. None of the trio carried avalanche gear. According to a statement from the Summit County Rescue group, it took them 20 minutes to reach Michelotti, dig him out with their own snowboards and get to a spot with cell phone reception to make the 911 call.
Toepfer said the avalanche center experts hope to interview the two survivors to learn more about the circumstances of the slide. He said it’s not clear if they were aware of the avalanche danger in the area, or whether they had accessed available avalanche information online or by calling the local hotline before heading into the backcountry.
The avalanche center had posted the avalanche danger as considerable for areas like the Steep Gullies for several days prior to the deadly slide, warning of a high likelihood of skier-triggered slides on slopes near and above treeline.
“There are bad problems in this year’s snowpack and they’re not going away,” Toepfer said. “They’re manifesting after every storm, from Telluride to Steamboat.”
Toepfer said local backcountry enthusiasts seem to be heeding the warnings and staying out of notorious avalanche traps like the Steep Gullies this season.
“It’s wearing on me, going out and looking at these things,” he said. “I hate seeing people getting killed doing something I love.”