Avalanche at Steamboat Resort completely buries one person; ski patrol makes ‘heroic’ rescue
Several other people caught in slide, which came from above
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One person was caught and buried in an avalanche at Steamboat Resort midday Sunday. The person was rescued in an effort Dave Hunter, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., called heroic.
“It was an incredible response and an incredible result,” Hunter said.
The “persistent hard slab” avalanche was “human triggered” and occurred primarily between Chutes 1 and 2, he said.
The call to Mountain Dispatch came in at 12:58 p.m., according to Hunter. Three members of the Steamboat Ski Patrol were on scene within three or four minutes. Some of the resort’s “highest avalanche experts” were already at Ski Patrol Head Quarters when the slide occurred.
At 1:05 p.m., they were “extricating the guest,” Hunter said, and by 1:06 or 1:07 p.m., the person was “fully extricated and conscious and breathing.”
They were then transported by ambulance to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center and are currently in good condition, Hunter said.
The avalanche started in an area of terrain that is inbounds but currently closed.
The group of people caught in the slide weren’t skiing out of bounds and did not cross any ropes, Hunter said. They traversed in above Big Meadow, which is open, and below the chutes, he explained. It is believed they triggered the avalanche from below.
While several other people were caught in the slide that was “propagated from above,” only one was completely buried. Another person was buried up to their waist.
There were a total of about eight people involved, Hunter said.
On Saturday, a slide occurred in the same geographical area. However that slide was a results of ongoing avalanche mitigation work, Hunter said.
“There is a reason why we are keeping terrain closed,” Hunter said. “The public needs to bear with us.”
He acknowledges the pressure the resort has been under to open more terrain and the eagerness of skiers to get at the terrain still closed.
But what happened on Sunday is precisely why the resort staff continues to perform extensive terrain assessment and management, which includes avalanche control, he said.
Hunter strongly urges everyone to use extra precautions — ski with a friend, check the conditions and “in areas you normally feel comfortable, you need to have your guard up and think about unintended consequences.”
And even that mitigation work is no guarantee, Hunter noted. “Snow is a wild thing.”
While there is “local angst to get into Fish Creek Canyon,” had something happened there, for example, ski patrol “may not be able to respond as quickly and easily. And it could end with a different result.”
Recent conditions have created “substantial unstable snowpack,” Hunter said.
On Saturday, the avalanche danger for the backcountry in Steamboat and the Flat Tops Wilderness Area was high. On Sunday, it went one notch down to “considerable.”
Conditions remain dangerous, Hunter said, largely because of the 63 inches of snow in October, followed by unseasonably warm weather including rain, and then the approximate 36 inches of snowfall over the past week, along with wind.
Kreston Rohrig, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s dedicated forecaster for the Steamboat area’s backcountry, called the weekend storm “a big test for the northern mountains.”
“There’s a really nasty layer of snow from October sitting near the ground,” he said. And, in the event of a big snow, a heavy load on top can cause the failure of that bottom layer. Because of a metamorphic process, that October layer has a “weak” and “angular” grain, Rohrig explained.
And any storm with “warm, moist air packs a lot of punch,” he said. Which is why they always measure the “snow water equivalent” as opposed to just measuring the depth.
When traveling into the backcountry, Rohrig advises people pay close attention to the Avalanche Center’s website or mobile app, have avalanche gear and training, and most importantly — when there are warnings — avoid avalanche terrain altogether. Avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees, he said, and “identify and be aware of terrain traps,” which can be any potential avalanche path that ends in an abrupt terrain change, like a road or a creek bed.
Rohrig encourages people to report their observations to the Avalanche Center. “The more eyes and ears in the backcountry,” the more they are able to accurately forecast, he said.
Hunter urges people to also pay close attention to resort information at steam boat.com.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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