Despite near-record avalanche death toll in Colorado, lure of the backcountry still powerful for many

Despite a historically unstable snowpack that has Colorado on the verge of breaking its record for avalanche fatalities, the lure of powder remains powerful for backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.

There have been 11 avalanche fatalities this winter, one short of the record set in 1993. February has been especially deadly with seven deaths, three just this week. But because of a series of storms that began Feb. 3, following poor early season snow, backcountry enthusiasts are making up for lost time.

On Thursday, the temperature at Berthoud Pass was 9 degrees at noon as Jim Smith of Denver finished off three hours of backcountry skiing, doing laps in an area called Pumphouse that required strenuous climbing along with giddy descents. His hydration system had frozen and ice clung to his whiskers, but the 74-year-old was loving life.

“The thing about backcountry skiing that’s very attractive is that it’s so beautiful,” the Denver resident said. “I only come up when there’s 4-6 inches of powder because for me, that’s what it’s all about, the powder. There’s nothing like it. It’s so exhilarating. It’s like floating on a cloud.”

The backcountry avalanche danger on Thursday was rated “considerable” by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, meaning level three on a scale of one to five. Smith said he almost never skis anything steeper than 25 degrees, knowing that most avalanches occur on slopes of 30-45 degrees. He was skiing alone, although plenty of other people were skiing the pass.

“I don’t take any chances,” Smith said. “I’m really careful. Skiing alone is not a good idea, but when you want to go, you gotta go.”

There were 22 cars at the Jones Pass trailhead a few miles west of Berthoud Thursday morning. Dan McGrew, a Denver firefighter with lots of backcountry experience and education, was planning to avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees as he set out.

“Everyone who goes out here thinks it’s not going to happen to them,” McGrew said. “You have to have some form of humility in your decision-making, and realize how error-prone human beings are when they’re out here.”

Last Sunday morning, a 57-year-old snowboarder set out by himself to climb Mount Trelease, located in the backcountry just north of Interstate 70 and adjacent to the Loveland ski area, to ride in an area known as Pat’s Knob. The daily forecast from the avalanche center that morning rated the danger as “considerable.” In addition, the CAIC had issued a “special avalanche advisory” two days earlier that was still in effect, saying in part, “Avalanche conditions are unusual. Backcountry travelers can trigger avalanches that may break very wide and run the full length of the avalanche path. Your normal routes and safety habits may not keep you out of a dangerous avalanche.”

The snowboarder, later identified by the Clear Creek County coroner’s office as David Heide of St. Mary’s (a small community near Idaho Springs), was caught in an avalanche some time around 8:45 a.m. According to an accident report issued Tuesday by the CAIC, the fracture line was as much as 20 feet high and was 850 feet wide, longer than two football fields. The slide ran 500 vertical feet, leaving a debris field 6- to 10-feet deep.

Shortly after the slide, another snowboarder heading up the trail caught a glimpse of Sam’s Knob from a distance and noticed an avalanche had occurred. That rider, not identified in the CAIC report, and other backcountry travelers communicated with authorities and helped them locate the victim’s body.

The Alpine Rescue Team, a volunteer search-and-rescue team that operates in Clear Creek, Gilpin and Jefferson counties, responded with more than 20 members, along with Clear Creek County sheriffs deputies, a half dozen Loveland ski patrollers and CAIC staff members. They had been concerned that more avalanches could happen in the search area.

“It’s petrifying every time we step out to think, ‘All right, what could happen? Could we be the next one caught in a slide?” said Clear Creek County undersheriff Bruce Snelling. In certain areas, “We have told people, ‘Snow conditions are such that we’re not going to go in there for a couple of months to recover somebody.’ Some places are just too risky.”

Heide had been carrying his cellphone, but not an avalanche transceiver.

“Unfortunately he had made contact with several trees on the way down, so even though his avalanche airbag was deployed, when you get run down through the trees like that, it’s pretty tough” to survive, said Tom Wood, who ran the recovery operation for the Alpine Rescue Team.

Snelling understands the attraction of the backcountry but urges people not to go alone, to check the daily CAIC report, to educate themselves and bring all appropriate equipment.

“I get it,” Snelling said. “It’s a draw, being in the backcountry. It’s tranquil, it’s peaceful, it’s beautiful. But you’ve got to take precautions.”

Wood worries that the things avalanche experts say can fall on deaf ears, even in an unusually active year for avalanches.

“It’s just a fine line between educating the public why this isn’t necessarily the best time or the best idea right now, versus preaching to people, talking down to people, and then they just tune you out,” Wood said. “We can say ‘don’t go out solo’ until we’re blue in the face, and people will still think that applies to everyone but them.”

Also on Sunday, a snowmobiler was killed near Rollins Pass. Another was killed Tuesday near Rand.

When the pandemic closed Colorado ski areas last year and people bought up backcountry gear in huge numbers, search-and-rescue teams across the state expressed concerns that inexperienced, ill-equipped people would go out and get themselves into trouble. But Colorado avalanche experts have noticed that this year’s avalanche fatalities tend to have been people with lots of backcountry experience who were well-equipped with safety gear.

“It’s not the novices and the newbies who are getting into trouble,” said Dale Atkins, a member of the Alpine Rescue Team since 1974 who also spent 19 years as a CAIC forecaster. “It’s people who have some knowledge, and they have the enthusiasm and fitness to get out and enjoy the mountains. This year is one of those years when what your experience has told you, or what you think is safe, or what has been safe for you in past years, may not be safe this year.”

Atkins is an avid backcountry skier, but says he typically skis slopes less than 30 degrees, no steeper than intermediate runs at ski areas.

“I love the steep and deep, but I’m also jaded from many years of mountain rescue and avalanche accident investigations,” Atkins said. “I’ve realized I don’t need to ski the steep. I like the deep, but I don’t need to be on the steep. If you stay to shallow slopes, and you stay out from underneath the steep slopes, you can be out there all day, having fun and not having to worry about avalanches.

“But if we were having this conversation 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t sound so sage.”

Colorado’s 2020-2021 avalanche season deaths

Due to unusual snow conditions in the backcountry, Colorado has had 11 avalanche fatalities this season — three of them this week — and stands to break the record of 12, set in 1993. Over the past 10 years, Colorado has averaged 5.9 avalanche fatalities per season. This is the deadliest season since the winter of 2012-13, which also saw 11. The lowest fatality counts over the past 10 winters (three deaths) occurred in 2017-18 and 2014-15. This year’s fatalities:

  • Dec. 16: a backcountry skier near Ohio Pass, Anthracite Range
  • Dec. 19: two backcountry skiers, near Ophir
  • Dec. 26: a backcountry skier, Berthoud Pass
  • Feb. 1: three backcountry skiers, near Ophir
  • Feb. 4: a backcountry skier, East Vail Chutes
  • Feb. 14: a backcountry snowboarder, Mount Trelease near Loveland ski area
  • Feb. 14: a snowmobiler, near Rollins Pass
  • Feb. 16: a snowmobiler, near Ruby Mountain in Never Summer Range

Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

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