Latest digital gear and snowmobiles no match for Colorado winter
DENVER Colorado’s mountains have a history of overpowering winter visitors, dating all the way back more than 150 years ago to Zebulon Pike and John Fremont, even though the latter had Kit Carson as a guide.The infamous Alferd Packer, stuck in deep snow near Slumgullion Pass in the winter of 1874-75, ate the remains of the gold seekers he was leading to Colorado. Chief Ouray of the Ute Tribe, who had befriended many travelers, warned Packer to wait until spring.In the winter of 1846-47 even more were killed when the Donner Party tried to cross the Sierras to get to the gold fields.”The Indians were smart enough to head down to the valleys in the winter,” said Colorado historian Tom Noel. Anthropological research has shown that Indians would winter at the base of the mountains in sheltered areas where cities like Denver have grown up, including Indians who roamed the plains.So far this year, two skiers have been killed in avalanches and three other people are missing in Colorado. Three snowmobilers caught in an avalanche south of Jackson, Wyo., were found dead Saturday and two backcountry skiers in northwestern Montana were found dead Sunday, raising the total of avlanche victims to more than 20 in Western states since Nov. 12. Nine of those were in Washington state.Over the past decade an average of 25 people have died in avalanches nationally.More snow is forecast for Colorado’s mountains, and even if it isn’t forecast it is always a possibility since the mountains can create their own weather.Both the National Weather Service and Colorado Avalanche Center had put out numerous warnings in the pasts several weeks. The avalanche risk was put at considerable Sunday in most of Colorado’s mountains.”We put out the information whether the public listens or not. It makes my colleagues and I horribly said. It is terrible,” said Anne Mellick of the Colorado Avalanche Center.Some reports have said some of the people who were killed or managed to escape had done all the right things. But is that possible?”All of the gadgetry isn’t capable of handling everything nature can dish out for us. They are not keeping us safe,” said Mellick. Avalanche beacons help find people but one of the victims was buried less than 20 minutes.Scott Toepfer of the avalanche center said Jesse Brigham, 27, Jan. 4, and his two partners had done everything by the book, the Vail Daily reported.”Here’s some guys who are really trying to do it right. And, God, some of it’s just bad luck,” Toepfer said.Experts say it all goes back to snow that fell in early October, it created an unstable foundation, some compare it to ball bearings that let it slide at the slightest provocation, such as the weight of fresh snow.Mellick said it isn’t possible in some cases to carve out a breathing space above your face. “Some of this snow is set up like concrete. You are not going to be able to move. They are completely entombed in snow,” she said.She also noted that 25 percent of victims die of trauma.A GPS will tell you where you are, perhaps providing some comfort in knowing where you died. But in heavy snow they often can’t, in the lingo, “acquire satellites” to provide an exact position. Rescuers who came to the aid of six snowmobilers trapped near the New Mexico border said the snow was falling at a rate of 8 inches an hour.That group was lucky. They were near the track of the Cumbres & Toltec narrow guage railway and they hunkered down in a railroad cabin for three nights.A cell phone can be more help but sometimes no signal is available. And a 911 could end up being received by a dispatcher hundreds of miles away, further delaying a rescue.It is essential that backcountry travelers, be they on snow machines, cross-country skis, snowshoes or just hiking, travel with at least one partner. They should carry shovels and a probe. Even within the boundaries of ski areas snowriders are urged not to go into the trees alone the danger there is tree wells, space next to a tree where it is easy to get trapped and panic. On the other hand sometimes snowriders have to get into the tree to be able to see anything in whiteouts because the trees provide definition.Backcountry air bags are being tested in Canada.If a phone is working rescuers can sometimes triangulate and figure out where the call is coming from. Getting there can be an arduous process in powder so deep snowmachines stall.”Some people don’t listen or think they can beat the weather man,” said Noel.The vast majority of victims in recent years have been snowmobilers as technology has improved, though exact figures are not available, said Mellick.
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