Experts say there’s much to learn from avalanche season
Renowned avalanche researcher Dale Atkins wanted to see the carnage first-hand.
He skied up Stevens Gulch Road below Grays and Torreys peaks after the early March avalanches, crossing massive debris piles laced with splintered trees. As he climbed toward treeline below Kelso Mountain, the white snow turned dusty red.
“Like we would see from a dust event,” Atkins said. “But it wasn’t desert dust. The snow to my right was white. While around this jumbled, tangled mess of crushed trees, it was dark red. I realized it was dust from pulverized bark on trees just getting crushed and thrashed. I think people are going to be stunned and amazed as they head off to do their adventures in the backcountry this summer. There are plenty of surprises waiting for us as we head out into the mountains right now.”
The 2018-19 winter in Colorado held plenty of surprises for avalanche watchers. The avalanche cycle in March stirred once-in-a-lifetime slides. Eight men lost their lives in slides, all of them beloved figures in their tightknit mountain communities. Four of them were fathers.
It was a tragic season for fatalities and one that avalanche researchers will be studying for a long time, trying to draw information that could help reduce the risk of future avalanches, but also place the season’s historic slide activity in context.
“There are a lot of lessons learned and we are still sort of processing that stuff,” said Ethan Greene, the 14-year director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), which this season counted a record 46 people caught in avalanches.
That includes seven skiers in Rocky Mountain National Park earlier this month who were swept — uninjured — down steep, popular couloirs in several skier-triggered avalanches.
“Certainly a lot of close calls this year,” Greene said. “The difference between a close call and a tragic accident is a very narrow margin. Looking back, I’m always impressed at how people can get caught in a very large avalanche and survive, and how small an avalanche people can get caught in and not survive. There is a lot of chance and luck.”
Luck makes gleaning insight and lessons from avalanches even more of a challenge. Especially this season, where half the fatal accidents involved skiers on slopes that barely tipped past 30 degrees, the angle at which snow can slip and move downhill.
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