Boot packers unhurt in Highland Bowl slide
Three members of a boot-packing crew at Aspen Highlands escaped injury last week despite sliding as much as 300 feet down a steep, icy slope in Highland Bowl.
About 12 Highlands ski patrol members and seven citizen volunteers were packing snow in the lower half of the bowl Wednesday when a small slab broke off, and four packers tumbled into the debris path of a previous avalanche, according to witnesses.
“Nobody got injured,” said Aspen Highlands ski patrol director Mac Smith. “Of course, there were some black and blue marks.
“We’re playing full-contact football up there. Sometimes there are bumps.”
The crew is working in the bowl and other parts of the mountain to stabilize the snowpack on steep slopes. That will help get the terrain prepared for skiing and riding quicker after future snows provide enough coverage.
Highlands recruited volunteers to help with the effort. For 80 hours of hard labor, they receive a two-day-per-week ski pass, or for 120 hours they get a premier pass.
Highlands snow safety director Kevin Heinecken, who heads the boot-packing program, said the crew was working down the slope at about 2 p.m. Wednesday near the flank of an avalanche path that had previously slid. A chunk of snow the size of a picnic table “sloughed” off and knocked four of the packers off their feet, he said.
One volunteer managed to stop himself immediately, Heinecken said. The other three packers – two volunteers and one patrolman – slid varying distances, the farthest about 300 feet down the avalanche path.
Volunteer Edwin Jenkins, one of those who took a tumble, said it happened so quickly he couldn’t recount many details. He immediately went to his stomach and started working his way over to the side of the debris path as he was sliding down, he said.
Jenkins said he didn’t believe much snow was falling down with him and he never felt threatened with getting buried in snow. Instead, he and the others battled to stop themselves on slick and extremely steep terrain.
Jenkins said he eventually got himself stopped. The patrolman slid the furthest down the slope and another volunteer stopped about halfway between them.
Jenkins said he was uninjured, except for some bruises.
The boot-packing crew quit for the day after the incident and discussed what happened and what additional safety steps could be taken. Heinecken and Smith both said they felt the accident was simply that – an accident – and nothing that resulted from insufficient planning.
Smith said neither the patrol nor volunteers would be sent into the bowl for boot packing if conditions weren’t safe. The patrol regularly uses dynamite charges for avalanche control before the boot-packing crews enter any of the slopes in the bowl, which has pitches of up to 45 degrees.
An Aspen Times reporter who visited the boot-packing crew just before the accident happened Wednesday found pockets of waist-deep snow and other areas with little snow and very slick rocks and dirt. It was extremely easy to lose footing in some areas.
Smith said he considered Wednesday’s event a mountaineering incident rather than an avalanche. It wasn’t reported to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center or the U.S. Forest Service because of the small amount of snow involved and the lack of injuries, according to Smith and Heinecken.
Heinecken said the center typically wants reports for avalanches much larger than what occurred in the bowl.
The boot-packing crew had Thanksgiving Day off. Two volunteers were back on the slopes Friday. Heinecken said all volunteers were told to take a break Monday while procedures were discussed further by the patrol.
Jenkins said he’s been debating whether or not to resume the volunteer work. Despite precautions, the incident points out the unpredictability of snow.
“When working with snow, nothing is tried and true,” Jenkins said. “There are no rules about avalanches.”
Aspen Skiing Co. attorney Dave Bellack said he was notified of the incident by the Highlands ski patrol. He said he didn’t believe the volunteer program would have to be halted.
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