Avalanche danger high " two incidents reported on Berthoud Pass this month
December 17, 2008
Grand County, Colorado ” Since Dec. 1, skiers have triggered 12 avalanches in Colorado ” two of them were close calls on Berthoud Pass. In total, there have been 14 reported avalanches in the state since the snow started falling this year.
Included in the number of avalanche close-calls this year, two individuals have been caught at Berthoud Pass, said Scott Topfer, a mountain weather and avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
On Dec. 5, one unidentified skier was partially buried and able to self-rescue. The skier had minor injuries and lost ski gear.
The next day, another Berthoud Pass skier triggered a slide. The person was caught and carried some distance but was not injured.
It’s alarming that such a rapid number of avalanche triggers have happened in such a short time, Topfer said.
Avalanche survivors report such incidents to the center, but many may not. On average, around 2,300 avalanches are reported to the center each season. This includes natural, accidentally and deliberately triggered slides. The center estimates 10 times that number go unreported. On average, avalanches kill six people per year in Colorado.
In the news
On Dec. 14, the nation read of this season’s danger in three separate headlines. One avalanche death took place in Aspen and another near-death occurred in Vail. On that same day, a Utah woman also died in a slide.
The season’s snow conditions make for premium avalanche conditions, according to Colorado’s Avalanche Information Center.
A former ski patroller, Cory Brettmann, 52, was caught, buried and killed in the Richmond Ridge area, just south of Aspen Mountain, reported the Aspen Times.
Traveling alone, the skier exited the resort through a backcountry gate into terrain known as Powerline. The victim was carried 200 vertical feet down the slope before being buried in a group of trees, states the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report.
“He was not wearing an avalanche beacon and carried no rescue gear,” according to the report. “Patrol members located him by finding a ski at the snow surface.”
That same day, a woman in Utah was caught, buried and killed by a snowslide at Snowbird Ski Resort. Heather Gross, 27, died at the hospital from her injuries.
Why is it so dangerous?
Although avalanche danger may be common this time of the year, reasons for this year’s danger are not normal.
From October to early December, high elevations in Colorado experienced three major rains, which created thin ice lenses on the first layers of snow. That, followed by a rapid onset of winter, caused snowpack to form with a high strength-to-stress ratio.
“It’s a complicated scenario out there,” Topfer said. “Snow pack is often like an old guy, it doesn’t like rapid change. It likes to ease into the winter.”
Where gravity is a big factor is especially vulnerable right now, he said.
Advice for skiers
Those who venture out should know the signs.
“Snowpack oftentimes when unstable will talk to you,” Topfer said.
Listen for cracks or drum sounds, and pay attention to snow that feels hollow beneath skis or board. “It will feel like layers are collapsing if you’re on steep terrain. That’s not a good sign. It means one should be tip-toeing to somewhere else as soon as possible,” he said.
Downhill enthusiasts should read up on avalanche signs to identify such places and/or take classes.
Downhillers also should realize their best hope of rescue lies with buddies when caught in a slide. Search and rescue may not access the area in time, according to Grand County Search and Rescue Field Director Craig Foley. After just 30 minutes buried in snow, chances of survival are slim, he said.
Even though there are avalanche warnings posted this time of year, the number of incidents so far “shows that people are still going out and pushing those limits,” Topfer said, calling it “disturbing.”
“We have a saying here: If you play with the snakes and the sharks long enough, you’ll eventually get bit.”
For more information about avalanche education and stats, go to http://avalanche.state.co.us/index.php.
” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail email@example.com.