Unthinkable and unlikely?
Aspen, CO Colorado
It is difficult to imagine a fatal avalanche occurring within ski area boundaries. Inbounds slopes are patrolled, controlled and frequently bombed ” both by dynamite and adrenaline charged teenagers in baggy snow clothes. Three hours into a powder day the once lively snow lays down leaden and lethargic. Yet, under the lumpy blanket, snow crystals continually morph.
– On Jan. 8 of this year, an avalanche occurred on the Parachute Bowl at Big White Ski Resort in British Columbia. The slope had been open since Dec. 12. In addition to skier compaction, on-going avalanche control included use of handcharges (explosives), ski-cutting and daily condition observations.
Two people were partially buried in the slide; one, a 12-year-old boy. It was initially believed that no one else was swept up in the cascading powder. However, late in the afternoon a person was reported missing. After an all-night search, on the following afternoon the body of an area employee was located and recovered from beneath 12 1 ⁄ 2 feet of icy debris.
” There is no avalanche safety team more qualified or passionate about their responsibilities than the Big White Ski Resort team,” said Peter Schumann, president of the resort, after the mishap.
– Two weeks earlier on Dec. 23, a catastrophic slide occurred at The Canyons resort near Park City, Utah. Three skiers were caught on Red Pine Chutes. One man died. An 11-yearold boy was saved, but remained in the hospital in serious condition until last Wednesday. He was found imprisoned in the jumbled snow by a 14-year-old girl skiing in the vicinity, hastily recruited to help probe the frozen rubble with her ski pole.
The slide occurred on a slope that had been subjected to avalanche control work throughout the entire week before the ropes were dropped on it. The ski patrol had used explosives and “other safety measures” in attempts to stabilize the snow within 24 hours of the accident.
“The event of today is a rare and unfortunate accident,” said Mike Goar, managing director of The Canyons.
– On April 17, 2006, a “gigantic” slide occurred on the Climax face of Mammoth Mountain in California. It came after upper mountain closures of four days because of a storm that officially dropped just 9 inches at the resort. The ski patrol immediately gathered about 300 people from nearby to form probe lines to search for victims. Three skiers were partially buried and six more were able to extricate themselves. Incredibly, there were no fatalities.
“Thank God …”, area spokesperson Joanie Lynch was quoted, noting that no missing persons were reported.
– In 2005, the heavily moguled Pallavicini run at Arapahoe Basin near Loveland Pass slid under the midmorning heat on a Thursday in late May. A 53-year-old man was buried and killed.
The slide was approximately 300 feet wide and ran for about 1,000 feet down the steep slope. Area ski patrollers reached the victim within minutes, to no avail.
“We had all the normal operating procedures in place,” ski area spokesperson Leigh Hierholzer said at the time. “We were doing what we would do every other day [with avalanche control work].”
Meditation on these incidents came while hiking Highland Bowl. A few dozen steps above timberline on one of the most expansive and exposed slopes that a lift ticket will grant access to, I realized just how unprecedented, in most all ways, the terrain I was on is. I’ve skied on two of the runs where these deadly avalanches occurred. For this column I reviewed pictures of the others. Highland Bowl is steeper, wider, longer and wilder than any of them.
As I write from my desk, and as you read, possibly with a warm cup of coffee in your hand, it is hard to fear terrain upon which thousands of skiers and snowboarders have left their tracks. Yet, walking up to that small summit 4,000 feet above, and dividing the Maroon and Castle Creek valleys, I watched wind carry snow ceaselessly from one side of the ridge to the other where we recreate, gauging the steepness of the slope by how far my body leaned into it when I stopped to catch my breath.
As I was trying to put into perspective its hulking mass by gazing far down into the fog at the dots disappearing over the last roll of terrain stubbed with evergreen whiskers on their way back to the Deep Temerity lift, for the first time in a very long time, I gave the lift-served terrain that I trod upon a second thought.
It occurred to me that, in this heavy winter, there might be more snow on these slopes than at any time since the ice ages ” much of it unnaturally so. Our boot-packing and ski tracking throughout the winter allows an incredible weight of snow to adhere to the Bowl’s sheer sides, more than Mother Nature ever did when she was in charge.
Days later on Aspen Mountain, at the Sundeck for a cup of chili and a Coke, I sat with an old friend who is as knowledgeable about avalanches as any person I know. I’ve climbed mountains with him. I’ve skied with him. I respect his judgment implicitly. Staring across the valley at the gargantuan face of white that haunts me throughout the nights since my Highlands foray, I brought up the subject of fracture lines, wind slabs, our big winter, and the Bowl.
Could the unthinkable happen?
He smiled and answered humbly. “We just don’t know.”
But, it’s unlikely. It has to be! It hasn’t happened in the 10 or so years we’ve been skiing it. Come on, it has to be safe, isn’t it? Even on a big snow year, it gets packed out every single day. That consolidated surface of snow has to be immensely strong by now! After a big storm it’s practically black with bomb blast. It’s not going to slide!
He smiled again. “Probably not, but we just don’t know for sure.”
He continued. “There is always a ‘hoary’ layer in snowpack next to the ground. It’s rotten there. Most of the time natural protrusions of rocks and such rise up and penetrate into the more stable layers above. But, even when upper layers are fairly consolidated, that ‘hoary’ layer is still down there.” He paused deliberately. “[Snow test] pits are dug daily. We think it’s safe.” Then the sheepish smile, “But, we don’t know everything about it.”
No matter how I prodded, I couldn’t get the answer I wanted. I don’t like it when people smarter than I “don’t know.” It means I have to think for myself: Be aware and prepared. Don’t ski alone. Don’t assume too much. Trust a bad feeling.
Will I ski the Bowl again? Probably. Did I ski it last weekend? No. At the last minute, I changed plans for a lap up there with my son and took him to Aspen Mountain instead.
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