In the West, avalanche danger puts resorts, experts on notice |

In the West, avalanche danger puts resorts, experts on notice

Christina Erb
The New York Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

JACKSON, Wyo. ” Whistler Blackcomb resort in British Columbia has stationed guards at the top of some areas to prevent skiers and snowboarders from entering hazardous terrain.

Grouse Mountain resort, in North Vancouver, has suggested that government action may be needed to deter skiers and snowboarders from using off-limit areas.

And Jackson Hole in Wyoming has already burned through nearly half of this year’s budget for avalanche hazard reduction work, one month into the season.

Resorts throughout the western United States and Canada are struggling with avalanche hazards as weather patterns have created uncommonly widespread conditions of instability, wreaking havoc on mountains crowded with skiers of all levels at the start of ski season. Last week, avalanches at Whistler Blackcomb killed a snowboarder and a skier on terrain out side of the resort’s boundaries. On Wednesday morning, a controlled slide ran past Jackson Hole’s $10 million Bridger Restaurant ” already damaged by a recent avalanche ” while the mountain was closed to the public.

“It’s a war zone,” said Lanny Johnson, a wilderness medical advisor and former patroller at Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows ski resort. He added that this avalanche cycle had “the best in the field scratching their heads.”

Since Dec. 14, avalanches have caused 13 deaths in the United States and 23 in North America ” one in a roof slide and the others in skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and ice-climbing incidents, according to Dale Atkins, vice president for the avalanche rescue commission for the International Commission for Alpine Rescue.

Perhaps most troubling to resorts and safety officials is that three people died in-bounds ” areas at resorts that are perceived as safe terrain. Avalanches in in-bounds areas have led to deaths of skiers at Squaw Valley in California, Snowbird in Utah and Jackson Hole. It is the most in-bound deaths in one season since three skiers were killed in a single avalanche at Alpine Meadows in 1976.

“One in-bound fatal avalanche in a season is unusual; three separate fatal incidents in one season is really rare,” said Bob Comey, director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center. “It’s been a really big problem. We’re doing what we normally do. Our techniques work really well, but they’re not ever 100 percent guaranteed.” Early snow this fall coupled with rain left a weak, ice covered base on many mountains. Then heavy storms throughout the West dumped several feet of snow, which has been perilously resting on the vulnerable base.

“It is sort of like dominos covered by a board,” Atkins said. “If dominos are widely spaced and a few fall over, nothing happens; however, if enough dominos are close to each other and one falls over knocking down others, enough may fall, causing the board to collapse.”

Avalanche forecasters anticipate that hazardous condi tions could persist well into the season throughout the backcountry in the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and the Tetons. The Teton County Sheriff’s Department reminded the public last week ” for the first time in its 17-year history ” that search and rescue might be significantly delayed or unable to respond to backcountry incidents because of heightened avalanche hazards.

“We’re off to a scary start; this December saw the most recorded avalanche fatalities for any December since the mining days,” Atkins said, adding that, historically, January, February and March were the worst months for avalanches.

The conditions are so alarming that even many expert skiers who normally attack backcountry terrain with ease are staying within the controlled areas of resorts. Sales of transceivers, used to locate people buried in an avalanche, soared at Jackson Hole’s ski shop after a recent in bounds slide, according to J.D. Disney, a sales representative there. The beacons are typically carried by back­country skiers, but Disney said the devices were purchased by many recreational skiers at the resort ” including a woman who bought five for her family.

Grouse Mountain barred three skiers and one snow boarder indefinitely for using an off-limits, avalanche prone area on its privately owned resort last week.

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