Expert: Snowmass avalanche victim was caught in ‘terrain trap’
Ryan Summerlin January 20, 2012
SNOWMASS – Avalanche experts say conditions throughout the Colorado backcountry are so “tricky” right now that skiers must beware of “terrain traps” such as the gully where Keith Ames was killed Wednesday in a slide on Burnt Mountain.
Brian McCall, an Aspen-based forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, visited the scene of the fatal slide on Thursday.
“It was a very short but very steep slope,” he said.
Ames was skiing out of bounds Wednesday just east of the Snowmass ski-area boundary with two acquaintances, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. McCall said his preliminary information indicates that Ames was the third skier down the steep gully. He was caught in a slide that was 50 to 60 feet long and 20 feet wide, according to McCall.
McCall had not been able to interview the other skiers yet, so he was uncertain of how Ames got caught in the slide. The other skiers were “a few hundred feet” lower on the slope when the slide occurred, McCall said. They hiked up to dig out the victim. Other skiers and snowboarders were also in the area and stopped to offer assistance. Ames was declared dead at the scene after attempts by bystanders and the Snowmass Ski Patrol to revive him were unsuccessful.
McCall said reports indicate that there were seven people at the scene. None had safety gear; Ames wasn’t wearing an avalanche beacon.
The slide was below treeline at an elevation of about 10,500 feet, on a northeast-facing slope, according to McCall. A full report on the incident will be posted on the avalanche center’s website, http://avalanche.state.co.us/index.php, once McCall collects all of the information.
He said the tragedy points to the need for backcountry skiers and snowboarders to “watch out” for small terrain traps, such as gullies. Backcountry travelers also must be prepared with the proper equipment, even if they are just outside a ski-area boundary, he said.
The winds that are accompanying unsettled weather in Colorado’s mountains will keep the avalanche danger “elevated” in the Aspen zone for the foreseeable future, the center reported Thursday.
The shallow, old snowpack contains several weak layers. New snow from recent storms and windblown slabs are “severely stressing” the weak layers, the avalanche information center said.
Numerous soft-slab avalanches have occurred since a snowstorm on Monday. Reports have come in regarding slides “from all elevations and many aspects” on the slopes in the backcountry around Aspen, the center’s online forecast said.
“Observers have noted shooting cracks that run down through the full depth of the snowpack,” the center reported. “Some of these collapses and shooting cracks will lead to remotely triggered avalanches.”
The center ended its forecast by urging backcountry travelers to take a conservative approach because conditions are so “tricky.”
Steep terrain should be avoided, for now, the center said.
“Avoid terrain traps where even a small slide can easily bury you,” the forecast said.
The avalanche danger was rated as considerable for most slopes and moderate on some aspects.
The Colorado Information Center staff is teaming with Mountain Rescue Aspen to present an avalanche-awareness workshop Friday and Saturday. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen. An evening classroom session will follow. Saturday includes a field trip to Richmond Ridge on the backside of Aspen Mountain and addition classroom work. The cost is $30. More details are available at www.mountainrescueaspen.org.