In-bounds avalanches raising red flags around West
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Avalanches have killed three people within ski-area boundaries this winter, shining the spotlight on the difficulties of managing a particularly tricky western U.S. snowpack and the growing trend to push the boundaries of steep terrain.
“Even though there have been three fatalities this year, the odds are minute,” said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “This has been a really bad year. It shows that the snow-safety experts can reduce the risk to almost zero, but they can’t eliminate it completely.”
Across large parts of the West, this season’s snowpack includes deeply buried ice layers that can be traced back to autumn rainstorms.
Combined with layers of unstable sugar snow and topped by thick, crusty slabs, the snowpack can withstand heavy duty blasting, ski cutting and sustained skier traffic before giving way at an unexpected moment, said Scott Toepfer, a Summit County-based forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Recognizing the dangers of hidden instabilities, Colorado Department of Transportation workers on Monday furiously bombed known avalanche paths above U.S. Highway 40 at Berthoud Pass without triggering some of the most dangerous slides, Toepfer said.
All of the fatal inbounds avalanches this year ” at Utah’s Snowbird, California’s Squaw Valley and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole ski areas ” have occurred on steep “extreme” slopes, Toepfer said.
Last season, a man died Dec. 23 in an inbounds slide at Utah’s Canyons Mountain Resort. In 2005, a skier died in a late-season wet snow avalanche at Arapahoe Basin, and a 13-year-old snowboarder was swept off a chairlift to his death at Lee Canyon Ski Area, near Las Vegas.
Part of the issue is that improvements in equipment is enabling more people to go more places that weren’t easily accessible 10 to 15 years ago.
“It used to be just the few, the proud,” Toepfer said.
Fat skis, however, let people float where they once would have been wallowing in bottomless snow, so they can traverse to favored cliff drops and steep chutes that would have been all but inaccessible.
In the deadly slides this year, the terrain was akin to a backcountry setting.
“If you look at Snowbird, it was a little more like a backcountry run than an in-area run,” Toepfer said.
Abromeit also acknowledged the widespread use of specialized powder skis as a factor in the recent spate of inbounds slides.
“There are a lot more triggers out there,” he said.
Avalanche experts around the West have taken notice of the recent accidents.
Ski patrollers have been “following a standard of care that has worked for decades,” but the seemingly safe snowpack that has survived blasting has given them a false sense of safety, Toepfer said.
“We have to find a way of managing that we haven’t had to do in the past. It’s somewhat of an unusual winter with these ice lenses,” he said.
In some cases, a slope could slide even after it’s been skied by 200, 500 or 1,000 people, he added.
“It’s the nature of snow on a slope. In a year like this, when you’ve got those ice layers near the ground, you have to bust that stuff up.”
That may be easier said than done. The ice in many places is now deeply buried. Even extensive blasting with heavy-duty explosives may not be enough to trigger break up the ice at the base if the blasts are dampened by the soft snow above.
Abromeit said the Forest Service has complete confidence in the snow safety and avalanche control procedures at local ski resorts.
But that won’t stop the agency and the ski industry from taking a hard look at the deadly slides and trying to prevent similar accidents in the future, he said.
For example, after a wet snowslide killed a skier at A-Basin, the Forest Service led an effort to gain more understanding of wet slabs, when entire slopes give way in the late season.
They found that, when faceted grains of snow persist until late in the season, the potential for slabs remains, even when air temperatures suggest more of a consolidated spring snowpack.
This season’s spate of deadly inbounds avalanches may spur some expert skiers and snowboarders to revisit the way they approach slide-prone terrain on the “safe” side of the rope.
Renowned ski mountaineer Lou Dawson, of Carbondale, recently advised skiers to keep their “avalanche eyes” open at all times.
“Know your basic avalanche skills and how to recognize if avalanche control has gotten away from the ski patrol,” Dawson recently wrote in his blog at http://www.wildsnow.com. “… Perhaps you’re pushing the limits of what’s ‘open’ and will need to apply total backcountry procedures even though you’re near of technically ‘in’ the resort.”
Dawson also recommended wearing a beacon at all times while skiing and said people should consider wearing an Avalung, an under-snow breathing device, considering that getting trapped in deep tree wells is also a risk in powder-rich seasons like this one.
Other precautions include using a low-key buddy system and establishing good communications using pre-arranged meeting places or two-way radios.
Finally, Dawson said there’s always the chance that rope lines can be covered or blown around during storm conditions, requiring skiers and boarders to be aware of the general layout of the ski-area boundaries to avoid skiing into closed areas.
Ultimately, this season’s inbounds fatalities may trigger a paradigm shift about the generally accepted assumption of what is “safe” and what is not. Snow-bound athletes continue to push the boundaries of their sport.
Jumping cliffs and carving turns in radical terrain that was mostly left untouched ” even within a ski area ” until a few years ago may result in a new awareness and even in new management techniques.
Toepfer, who served on ski patrol at Vail years ago and has worked with avalanche experts in Europe, said the massive Alpine resorts that extend across several mountain ranges use a slightly different model to manage risk.
In the United States, there is a general assumption that all the open terrain within a ski-area boundary is managed and controlled to reduce risks.
Many alpine resorts use an “on-piste, off-piste” model wherein the managed areas are marked by colored poles corresponding to the difficulty of the terrain. Even just three feet outside the bamboo, areas are considered unmanaged off-piste, where you enter at your own risk ” even if it looks like it’s within the ski area.
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