Vail chutes still open after two deaths |

Vail chutes still open after two deaths

Steve Lynn
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
A Jan. 4 fatal avalanche in East Vail Chutes was between 2 and 7 feet deep at its crown. (Courtesy Scott Toepfer)

VAIL, Colo. ” The East Vail Chutes remained open Sunday despite the recent deaths of two Vail men in avalanches there.

“We haven’t had any discussions about closing that area yet ” not that we won’t entertain that idea,” U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Don Dressler said Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, two avalanche forecasters were investigating an avalanche in East Vail Chutes in which Matthew Gustafson, 33, of Vail, died Saturday. Another Vail resident, Jesse Brigham, 27, died eight days earlier in an avalanche in the same area.

East Vail Chutes is a backcountry skiing area that is not part of Vail Mountain, but skiers get to the chutes via a gate by the Mongolia lift in Vail’s Back Bowls.

About 150 people ski East Vail Chutes on a busy day, and Dressler has estimated about half don’t have the proper equipment, such as beacons, shovels and probes.

Dressler often talks to skiers heading to the backcountry from Vail and Beaver Creek mountains about whether they have the knowledge and equipment, he said. Sometimes those skiers say they have experience and continue their trip, and sometimes they turn around, he said.

“I can’t turn anyone around, but I can inform them about the risks that are involved,” he said.

The Forest Service wants people to be educated on backcountry skiing instead of closing the area, he said.

Backcountry skiers can take avalanche safety classes at Colorado Mountain College or read avalanche forecasts on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website, he said.

According to that website, avalanche danger has been listed as “considerable” in the Vail and Summit County area every day since Jan. 4, when Brigham died in East Vail Chutes. “Considerable” danger means human-triggered avalanches are “probable” and natural avalanches are “possible.”

Gustafson and Jackie Rossman, 45, of Vail, were skiing by the King Tut and Old Man’s chutes about 11 a.m. Saturday when the avalanche happened. That area is just east of Charlie’s Death Chute, where another avalanche killed Brigham.

Rossman, who was skiing with Gustafson, told authorities he was buried for an hour in the avalanche before he able to free himself and call 911.

Rossman’s hand was sticking out of the snow and he was able to quickly get the snow out of his face and breathe, said Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center who investigated the avalanche Sunday.

Gustafson was buried for at least four hours before rescuers found him and he was pronounced dead shortly afterward, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said.

Logan did not know what set off the avalanche, but it started in a 30-foot-wide chute and spread to more than 250 feet wide when it continued its path to a wider slope below a cliff band, Logan said. The avalanche ran about 900 vertical feet and was 4 to 5 feet deep, he said.

The force of the avalanche “would have been sufficient to damage vehicles, break buildings,” Logan said.

Closing East Vail Chutes would require an order from a forest supervisor in Glenwood Springs, but Dressler does not think the Forest Service could enforce the closure, he said.

“I’ve made my choice that I will not ski these routes under current conditions, but people have to make their own choices,” he said.

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