Contrary to early reports, Copper Mountain slide was in open terrain
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT — On Saturday, Summit County ski areas were celebrating one of the season’s first major snowstorms.
The fresh snow stressed the region’s snowpack, which is set atop a weak layer of October snow. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center was reporting that avalanche danger above tree line was high in the backcountry and that “large and dangerous human-triggered avalanches” were “very likely.”
Inbounds, resorts were having problems of their own. Copper Mountain Resort reported 10 inches that morning on top of 7 that had fallen the previous day. Skiers and snowboarders were eager to get first tracks on newly opened terrain, but experienced backcountry skiers began to notice signs of trouble.
Reid Kalmus, an accomplished local backcountry skier and snowboarder, said he was snowboarding with a friend Saturday morning and came upon the entrance to a traverse that led into the Enchanted Forest area. There was a line of people waiting for ski patrol to drop a rope, opening the entrance to the traverse.
Kalmus said there were about 20 to 25 people in front of him and, by the time the rope dropped, about 15 more people behind him. The group began traversing above a wind fence around a ridge.
“Everyone was struggling to posthole and wade through the deep snow,” Kalmus said. “That’s what raised my first area of awareness. We kept going forward and people were getting stuck, taking off their snowboards. Finally, this guy in front of me jumped over the wind fence about 20 yards past where the rope was dropped.”
Following the man over the fence, Kalmus dropped into the Enchanted Forest terrain.
“I hopped over that fence and the whole floor beneath me just ripped out,” Kalmus said. “I just stood right where I was and watched the whole slope propagate downhill.”
Kalmus said he then looked upslope for his friend.
“Immediately after, this lady screamed, and there was a second fracture line 20 to 30 meters above the wind fence,” Kalmus said.
According to Kalmus, three people were pushed into the wind fence from the upper slide and were partially buried. Another man happened to have a backcountry kit with a shovel and started digging people out of the snow. Kalmus estimated there were 40 to 50 skiers and snowboarders present.
No one was injured in the slides.
“I decided to ski the slope, and I came back, and the rope was back up,” Kalmus said.
Copper spokeswoman Taylor Prather reported Sunday that an avalanche occurred in a closed area of the resort and that an individual was caught on camera disregarding the closure. After further investigation, Copper ski patrol concluded there were two avalanches: one on open terrain and one on permanently closed terrain.
“At approximately 10:31 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14, Copper Mountain Ski Patrol received two calls which reported an avalanche in the area of Lower Enchanted Forest. Ski Patrol responded immediately and followed standard protocol of performing a hasty search, finding no one in need of assistance and no witnesses to provide a statement. The area where ski patrol was dispatched to was located in a permanently closed area of Lower Enchanted Forest,” according to a statement released by Copper officials.
Avalanche Information Center Deputy Director Brian Lazar said inbounds slides on open terrain are rare but that slides in closed areas are not.
Lazar explained that ski areas encompass a lot of avalanche-prone terrain and that avalanches in closed areas, whether purposely or naturally triggered, are relatively common during and after a big storm.
“It’s very rare for avalanches to happen inbounds on open ski slopes,” Lazar said. “They do a remarkable job of reducing the risk of avalanches, but we are still dealing with a natural environment.”
Despite riding inbounds, Kalmus said the dangerous backcountry conditions that day were on his mind and he was concerned about the conditions of the traverse, especially when a large group set out on it.
“With that in the back of my head and then traversing over to a new aspect, that was a definite concern,” Kalmus said. “Just by the way everyone was acting, I had a pretty good feeling that no one knew how to deal with an avalanche.”
Prather said the resort’s dispatch received two calls about slides, but by the time ski patrol arrived, no one was at the scene and no witnesses were present to give testimony about what happened.
“We’re trying to work with Reid (Kalmus) because the only call that was given to patrol was just an initial call,” Prather said. “And when we went down there, there was no one there. No one filed a witness statement.”
In addition to Kalmus, skier Jack Gallaway provided a firsthand account of the incident via an email to the Summit Daily News.
“I was with a group of friends skiing down Hallelujah Ridge at Copper on Saturday,” Gallaway wrote. “At the bottom of that run, we saw dozens of skiers traversing over to Lower Enchanted, and the sign on the gate was flipped to open.”
Gallaway said he and his group followed the line of skiers in search of “untouched powder,” but once they reached the Lower Enchanted Forest advanced run, he felt conditions were unsafe.
“It became clear to me that the run shouldn’t have been opened, as snow was sliding down from all sides and the run was already peppered with half-buried skiers,” Gallaway wrote.
Copper Mountain is asking those who were in the area at the time of the avalanches to provide a witness statement by calling patrol headquarters at 970-968-3311.
“If a skier or snowboarder were to witness an inbounds avalanche, they should report it immediately by calling ski patrol and then stay on scene in a safe area and wait for further instruction,” Copper officials wrote in the statement.