Rescuers in Summit County responded to three avalanches over the weekend
November 23, 2015
Summit County rescuers were able to evacuate a man partially buried from an avalanche Saturday — one of three reported slides over the weekend.
Summit County Rescue Group received a call from dispatch just after 2 p.m. on Saturday, when a man said he had injured himself skiing in the backcountry. He reported he was in an open meadow on the west side of Bald Mountain, a popular area for winter sports. But the man was nowhere to be seen.
"When we arrived, we interviewed everybody," mission coordinator Brian Binge said. "We searched around; finally got one person in the ridgeline, and he was able to see the avalanche."
The man was partially buried from the waist down on Bald Mountain's steeper, more avalanche-prone east side. With a slope of about 38 degrees — the northeast-facing slope — and the fresh snow from Friday, it made for the perfect storm.
"He was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time," Binge added.
One rescuer skied down to assist the man while a Flight for Life helicopter was able to land on a grassy knoll nearby, despite strong winds that evening. While other rescuers waited atop the ridge, the rescuer advised they do not ski down, as avalanche danger was still high.
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The man was extricated at around 4:30 p.m., just as the sun went down, with several injuries. Binge said that while the injuries were not life-threatening, if the man stayed out for too long, he would have risked hypothermia. The man was flown to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and treated that evening.
"When I interviewed him in the hospital, he said he tumbled down head over heels and had never been fully buried," he said. "The first thing he said when we visited him in the hospital was that he was lucky to be alive and grateful we were able to come and get him."
The rescue group responded to two additional avalanches over the weekend, with no additional injuries reported. On Sunday, a slide was reported in the second steep gully west of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The snowboarders nearby were able to avoid the slide.
Just an hour later, another slide was reported at the top of Loveland pass, with unknown burials. Rescuers responded with a Flight for Life helicopter, but after an hour of investigation, they determined no one had been buried.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Green noted that while avalanches have historically been reported at the beginning of the season, "the avalanches we saw on Saturday and Sunday were bigger than what we see this time of year."
He said the large slides were all "persistent slab" avalanches, with recent storms forming a strong slab of snow on top of weaker snow from earlier this season. These types of avalanches can be trigged days or weeks after a snowstorm.
"These were large avalanches. Killer slides. And we're lucky we didn't have a fatality—we're really lucky," Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Scott Toepfer said.
According to the center's forecast, the Aspen area faces moderate avalanche danger on steep slopes where dense slabs of drifted snow sit above old, faceted snow.
"You'll find this persistent-slab avalanche problem on upper-elevation slopes loaded by last week's unwelcome winds. These face northwest through north to southeast. Whumpfing collapses and shooting cracks are clear signs that this problem exists. It's more widespread in areas closer to the Continental Divide, such as the upper Roaring Fork and Frying Pan valleys, which saw several bouts of strong winds," the avalanche center's forecast for the Aspen zone reads.
Toepfer suggested that those looking to head into the backcountry take an avalanche class, with courses ranging from an hourlong evening class to a weeklong intensive class for the more backcountry-oriented. He also suggested that skiers and snowboarders bring a partner of similar ability.
"This is what we think of as a lifelong learning experience," Toepfer said. " If something doesn't feel right, you have to be able to say 'no.' It's going to be there tomorrow, it's going to be there next week, it's going to be there 10 years from now."
Backcountry users are advised to check conditions on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's website daily before heading to the slopes. Skiers and snowboarders also are advised to bring an avalanche beacon, transceiver and shovel at the minimum, with Recco equipment and airbag packs also suggested.