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Avalanche control work rocks Aspen

Steve Benson

If the series of explosions that shook downtown Aspen Monday afternoon seemed abnormally loud and powerful for avalanche control work, it’s because they were.

According to Doug Driskell, an avalanche technician on the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, several 5-pound bombs were detonated due to the heavy, wet snowpack. The patrol typically uses 2-pound bombs to trigger lighter, dry-snow avalanches.

Plus, the control work was conducted in the Trainors Ridge area near Shadow Mountain, on the western edge of the lower part of the mountain.

“That area is really close to town and we used a larger charge because of the wet conditions,” Driskell said following the control work.

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The force of the explosions rattled windows, set off car alarms, and sent dogs running.

“Whenever we have a big boom or fireworks we seem to a have a lot of dogs that go missing,” said Charlie Martin, the supervisor of the Community Safety Department, which works with Animal Control. “It just scares the heck out of them. It scared the heck out of me.”

According to Martin, about 10 dogs were reported missing following the blasts, with one dog breaking through a screen door to get out of a house.

In roughly two hours of blasting, a total of 17 charges were detonated by six patrollers (three teams of two) in the notoriously steep and rarely opened Trainors area, Driskell said. Between six and 10 avalanches were triggered, with all of them releasing down to the ground and two running to Summer Road.

The entire area was closed to skiers prior to and during the control work, with members of the ski patrol manning the access gates to make sure nobody accidentally wandered into danger, Driskell said.

A weeklong heat wave has created dangerously unstable snow conditions. By midmorning every day, the snowpack throughout the Central Rockies becomes water-saturated, heavy and prone to sliding.

“This has been an exceptional warm spell,” said Dale Atkins, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “The snow is melting fast, and that water is melting bonds between grains and lubricating weak layers. The real steep, sun-exposed slopes are avalanching, while many of the other slopes only need a good push.”

While wet slides travel significantly slower than dry-snow avalanches (about 20-40 mph versus 50-70 mph), Atkins said wet slides can be deadly.

“They tend to be much slower than dry snow, but because they’re so dense they can do a lot of damage,” Atkins said. “Once you go under in a wet-snow avalanche, you’ll probably stay under due to the sheer mass and density.”

The warm weather triggered an avalanche in Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands Monday morning.

According to Jeff Hanle, communications director for the Aspen Skiing Co., the slide occurred in the Y-zones on the southeast-facing slopes of the bowl. The area has been closed since early March, and nobody was in danger. The Highlands Ski Patrol used the slide as a training opportunity, which included a probe exercise and the deployment of avalanche rescue dogs, Hanle said.

Over the weekend, three climbers on La Plata Peak were not involved in a training exercise, but the real thing.

One climber was killed and another was buried in an avalanche while descending the peak, located in the Sawatch Range three miles south of Independence Pass, Saturday afternoon. The fatality was the second avalanche-related death of the season in Colorado.

Atkins said one of the climbers triggered the avalanche while glissading down at about 3:15 p.m.

“[The avalanche] was initially triggered in dry, colder snow,” Atkins said. “But once it started sliding down it plowed into wet snow, set that loose, and brought the whole gully down.”

None of the climbers were wearing a transceiver.

Avalanche rescue dogs from Crested Butte were brought in to help locate the man, identified as 22-year-old Kyle Fitzpatrick, of Colorado Springs. His body was found shortly before noon Sunday.

Hanle said all of Highland Bowl and Steeplechase may be closed today and the rest of this week due to the warm weather and avalanche danger.

“They’ll make a day-by-day decision,” he said. “If we don’t have a hard freeze, we’ll probably keep the bowl closed [today].”

Hard freezes overnight help stabilize the snowpack and delay the daily melting cycle.

While the weather has been unseasonably warm, Driskell said wet slides and extensive control work are routine in the spring.

“This is common for this time of year,” he said. “This is our most difficult time for avalanche control.”

With much of Ajax’s steep terrain located on the lower part of the mountain, Driskell said the snowpack is warmer and wetter in the spring and therefore more prone to producing wet slides.

But open terrain, he added, is not in danger of sliding.

“It’s safe, as long as people stay in open areas,” he said. “I wouldn’t venture off [out of bounds].”

Said Hanle: “Come on out, don’t get out your bikes just yet – there’s still some great skiing.”

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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