Forest Service exonerates A-Basin in Avalanche death
September 10, 2005
DENVER ” Results of a U.S. Forest Service-led investigation released Friday exonerated the Arapahoe Basin ski area in the first avalanche death in 30 years within the boundaries of a ski area and called for more research into so-called wet slab avalanches.
The ski area “fulfilled the spirit and intent” of their snow safety plan and their special use permit, said Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center and a member of the team that investigated the death of David Conway, 53, of Boulder.
The team’s report described how warm weather led to the 150-foot-wide and 1,362-feet long slide on a 25-to 30-degree expert slope 11,700 feet high.
“We appreciate the effort the Forest Service put into the report. The safety standards enforced by the U.S. Forest Service do not take into account a high altitude ski area staying open until late May with temperatures remaining above freezing. We support the Forest Service’s efforts to strengthen safety standards to take into account the potential for wet slab avalanches,” said Jim Chalat, the lawyer representing Beth Gaffney, Conway’s widow.
A search for Conway was immediately launched and he was found about 30 minutes after the avalanche when one of his ski boots was spotted sticking out of the snow among trees plastered by the avalanche. Rescuers were unable to revive him, and the coroner determined he died of head injuries.
Wet slab avalanches are a little-understood and rarely studied type most likely to occur when the snowpack doesn’t freeze hard during the night. Instability is created between the layers of snow, and the lower layer can no longer support the layer above.
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Abromeit recommended further study of wet slab avalanches by the Forest Service, avalanche forecasters, scientists, and snow safety personnel at ski areas.
The report said Arapahoe Basin’s snow safety plan “generally reflects recognized snow safety protocols but does not specifically address wet slab conditions and protocol.” The resort “conducted a rapid and appropriate response to the incident, including hasty search, medical response, notifications and mobilization of additional resources,” the report added.
Investigators could not determine how the slide was triggered, saying it was most likely caused by another skier, or Conway himself. The report said 95 percent of victims trigger the slide that catches them or a person near them triggers it, although natural causes could not be ruled out.
The slide started in First Alley, a slope on the west side of the Pallavicini area.
May 19, the day before the avalanche, ski conditions in the area were poor, according to the report. Two skiers reported being stuck in the snow.
Less than 30 minutes before the avalanche occurred, area mountain operations director, Alan Henceroth, skied First Alley area where the slide occurred but did not see any signs of avalanche danger. “Henceroth reported that his skis penetrated about one inch into the surface of the crust and that tracks from the day before were frozen in place and quite hard and rough,” said Abromeit.
Resort employees riding the Pallavicini Lift saw the avalanche and immediately reported it by radio, which resulted in staff rushing to the scene. Within 10 minutes a rescue dog was at the site.