Backcountry is shifty | AspenTimes.com

Backcountry is shifty

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Natural-release avalanches.

Skier-triggered slides.

And at least one skier has gone for a ride, all in the last week.

The snowpack around Aspen, if you haven’t noticed, is slipping around with the recent warming trend.

On Wednesday, two visitors kicked off a Class 2.5 avalanche (5 being the most hazardous) in North Tonar Bowl, a west-facing backcountry chute off Highland Peak ridge, an area where two Aspen residents died in March 2000.

Last Friday, Ted Davenport of Summit County was caught in a Class 1 slide in the Widow Maker, a chute accessed off the Snowmass Ski Area that he skied with older brother Chris, a prominent Aspen freeskier. (Ted went for a ride and is fine.) And on Saturday, another local reportedly kicked off a Class 2 or 3 avalanche in MacFarlane’s Bowl on the backside of Aspen Mountain.

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In a polling of local backcountry skiers yesterday, avalanches in the area counted eight in the last week. Other locales include Maroon Bowl off Highlands, Mount Hayden and one near the Markley Hut up Castle Creek, and Shimer Peak (or Sunshine) on Indy Pass.

“The snowpack is tender and a bit confused right now,” said Chris Davenport. “And while there’s still been some skiing out there that’s relatively safe and fun, there’s a whole lot of surprises and dangerous places too. I’d say many dangerous places.

“MacFarlane’s, Tonar and Maroon, those are the classic spots, and in some ways there’s no surprise in that.”

Said Dick Jackson, guide and owner of Aspen Expeditions: “The CAIC [Colorado Avalanche Information Center] is saying moderate with pockets of high [avalanche danger]. But we’re seeing naturals, and big ones locally, and we’d have to say it’s considerable with pockets of high.

“Especially west [aspects] through southeast.

“Do we still have a non-fatality winter going in Colorado?” Jackson asked.

Indeed. To date, avalanche fatalities in Colorado this winter number zero.

“People are still going out [in the backcountry] and for good reason; for the most part this winter, it’s been a stable snowpack,” Jackson said. “Recently, though, we’re seeing the kind of conditions that can cause accidents and, of course, it’s not the conditions creating the accidents. It’s the people.”

Kevin Heinecken, assistant patrol director at Aspen Highlands, said the North Tonar avalanche slid some 2,000 vertical feet.

“I don’t know what they were doing,” he said of the two women, who were equipped with self-rescue gear. “And that’s sort of not my business. But I talked to them, and I said, ‘You really didn’t do anything wrong. … It just so happened that that path killed two of our friends.’ And I left it at that.

“A weak layer is lurking down there still,” Heinecken continued. “We’re just sort of teetering on that edge of a large-scale avalanche. And as soon as you throw a trigger in there, you never know. But people can do what they want.”

At least one party skied in the Tonar Bowl area yesterday.

“You learn something every time you see or experience an avalanche,” said Chris Davenport.

In the north-facing Widow Maker, Davenport continued, “I went first, [Ted] went second. It was a low break, over right near the trees. He was fine. It just caught him by surprise.

“Two days after we skied Widow Maker, six more people went out there, and they didn’t have any problems.”

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com]

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