Forecasters: Avalanche danger rises in Colorado, Utah |

Forecasters: Avalanche danger rises in Colorado, Utah

P. Solomon Banda
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – With avalanches sweeping away six snow riders on Sunday and killing a skier last week, forecasters fear the weak snow caused by below average snowpack could mean deadly conditions in the coming months for in the Colorado and Utah backcountry.

As of Sunday, 47 people have been caught in backcountry avalanches in Colorado, including the six on Valentine’s Day, according to Spencer Logan with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. None of Sunday’s incidents were fatal.

“Most avalanche professionals are very surprised that we’ve had only two fatalities in Colorado,” said Logan, an avalanche forecaster. “We’ve had some very dramatic close calls.”

Keith McCulloch of Buena Vista broke his leg when an avalanche slammed him into a tree on Mount Yeckel, about 15 miles northwest of Aspen. Three other skiing companions were also swept away by the avalanche Sunday but managed to ski out for help.

About 75 miles north, two snowboarders escaped injury after triggering an avalanche along U.S. 6 near Loveland Pass. Both left the area before emergency crews arrived.

Forecasters say that unlike typical years when large storms dump mounds of snow that binds to mountain sides, a series of smaller storms has left thin layers of snow that barely cling to the one below.

When these weak layers of snow get crusted in frost, they form small slabs that slide off even on relatively gentle slopes.

With similar conditions in neighboring Utah, Bruce Tremper, director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, said 26 avalanches that were reported Sunday were the most in recent memory. A few people said they had to hold onto trees to avoid getting swept away.

“A lot of people have not seen this before, they are used to going out and rage on the slopes a couple days after a storm, but this year, it’s a whole different animal,” he said.

Colorado averages about 65 people caught in avalanches each year, with about five to six fatalities. In Utah, about 20 people get caught in avalanches each year, with about four of those resulting in death.

On Thursday, Kellen Robert Sams, 27, of Manitou Springs died when a 150-foot wide slab of snow slid 500 feet down a slope in the San Juan Mountains near Ridgway. He tried to ride out the avalanche but struck a tree. Another man caught in the slide survived.

Small slides can also be deadly. In January, 19-year-old Jasper “Jaz” McGrath of Grand Marais, Minn., died in an avalanche in the backcountry near Vail Mountain when a 2-foot deep, 24-foot wide slab of snow broke off the slope and slid about 100 feet.

Logan said several close calls have been reported by backcountry skiers near Vail and Telluride.

Tremper and Logan said those exploring the backcountry travel with companions be equipped with avalanche beacons, a shovel and a probe. “These are like seat belts,” Logan said. “They only help lessen the consequences of getting caught in an avalanche.”

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