Backcountry skier OK after Maroon Bowl slide | AspenTimes.com

Backcountry skier OK after Maroon Bowl slide

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

An experienced local backcountry skier escaped uninjured after being caught in an avalanche Tuesday afternoon in Maroon Bowl just outside the boundary of the Aspen Highlands ski area.

“I got beat up a little bit but I’m OK,” skier Rick Wilder said Tuesday evening.

The avalanche is considered a Class 2, “small” on a 1-to-5 rating scale, but still large enough to kill, bury or injure a person.

The slide happened in “N 7,” a north-facing portion of Maroon Bowl, which shares the same ridge as Highland Bowl but is outside the ski area’s boundaries.

“It’s pretty much the biggest, most direct line off the Maroon Bowl,” said Kevin Heinecken, the director of snow safety at Highlands. The ski patrol doesn’t control the bowl, but patrollers did witness the slide.

The 600-foot slide started at approximately 11,400 feet and ended at 10,800 feet.

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“It was definitely enough to kill you if you were in the wrong place,” Heinecken said. “But not enough to guarantee death.”

He said the slide was about 5 percent as big as the huge slide set off last spring in Maroon Bowl by a group of young local skiers, all of whom escaped unscathed. “It wasn’t like last year where you look at it and say, `Oh my God, those guys should be dead,'” Heinecken said.

That slide left a fracture line almost completely across the expanse of Maroon Bowl. Tuesday’s slide was confined to a relatively narrow gully in the bowl.

Wilder, who has skied in the backcountry for over 30 years, was not seriously injured in the slide and walked back up and out of the bowl after taking a ride.

“It comes with the territory,” he said. “If you are going to ski the backcountry, not every day is going to be a good day.”

In March 2000, Wilder was with a group of skiers in Tonar Bowl on the ridge beyond Maroon Bowl when an avalanche caught and killed two local skiers.

Wilder’s skiing partner on Tuesday, also an experienced local backcountry skier, skied down after the slide from a point well above the start of the avalanche. He chose a line to the skier’s left of Wilder’s and then went down through the debris flow.

Wilder lost his skies in the slide, and the two men hiked up a section of the bowl called “Dead Trees,” where a previous slide, perhaps triggered by avalanche control work, had stripped the snow down to the dirt.

(The Highlands patrol does not attempt to control the snow in Maroon Bowl, but it does throw some explosive charges in the bowl just below the rock outcrop on the path to the top of Highland Bowl. This is a precaution in case a hiker were to fall off the ridge, Heinecken said.)

Tuesday’s slide was witnessed by a member of the Aspen Highlands ski patrol. Members of the patrol could also see the bottom of the slide and saw that the person who had been caught was OK and moving about when the snow stopped sliding.

“We were looking at whether we would needed to consider a rescue,” Heinecken said. But after it was clear the skier was up and moving on his own, the patrol decided a rescue was not needed.

The boundary policy at the Aspen Skiing Co. mountains is such that skiers and snowboarders are allowed to enter the backcountry at any point along a ski area’s boundaries, although the ski patrol requests that skiers leave the ski area at the backcountry gates that are set up at different access points.

The patrol does not have a formal responsibility to rescue skiers in the backcountry but will do so in coordination with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department.

Wilder and his skiing partner entered the Maroon Bowl just above the Fundeck level of the Highland Bowl ridge.

Wilder went down first and was about halfway down the steep part of the bowl when the slide happened.

“It had a little bit of wind load in there, maybe 18 inches deep or something,” he said. “There was a little bit of a roll about a third of the way down the bowl. And it was a little bit loaded on the other side of the roll.”

Almost the entire north-facing portion of Maroon Bowl slid naturally about three weeks ago, and some local backcountry skiers were surmising that the snow that had since fallen in the bowl might be stable enough to ski. However, last week there was a strong wind, which may have influenced the snow’s stability in the area.

“I figured it had bonded pretty well,” Wilder said.

The avalanche rating yesterday from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center was moderate danger “with pockets of considerable” hazard.

The report also noted that “triggered releases are possible to even probable on steeper and recently wind-drifted slopes. Deep instabilities still lurk on the northerly aspects and deep, large releases are possible.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]

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