Sleeping giants: Grand County enjoys 5 years without avalanche fatalities, though danger lurks
December 14, 2018
Avalanches are a thing of wondrous yet destructive beauty.
They are a churning, swirling maw of snow and ice cascading down a mountain at near terminal velocity, often with deadly consequences. Over the past 20 winters, six people have died from avalanches in Grand County and while the most recent avalanche death happened nearly five years ago, every storm system brings with it the potential for a new tragedy.
Danger lurks just beneath the surface of Colorado's crystalline powder.
Avalanches, and the dangers they pose, are a fundamental issue for the western half of the northern hemisphere. From New Mexico, up the spine of the Rocky Mountains, through British Columbia and on into the vast mountain ranges of Alaska, avalanches are deadly serious. From the early 1950s through today there has been a gradual increase in avalanche fatalities across the nation, with avalanche related deaths spiking in the early 1990s.
Concerns about avalanches are especially pertinent in Colorado, which holds the dubious distinction of being the deadliest state in the country for avalanches.
According to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado saw 276 avalanche fatalities from 1950 to 2017, nearly double the next closest state, Alaska, which saw 152 avalanche fatalities during the same time period. Nationwide, the United States saw 1,059 total avalanche fatalities during that same time period.
Grand County alone accounts for a significant portion of Colorado's overall avalanche death statistics for the state
Between the 1998-99 winter season and now, officials from the Colorado Avalanche Information Network, or CAIC, tally six avalanche deaths in Grand County out of the state's 114 avalanche deaths during that same time period. Looking further, viewing statistics from the 1950-51 winter through the 2011-12 winter, Grand County ranked as the seventh deadliest county in the state in terms of avalanches with 11 recorded fatalities, tying Lake County.
While Grand County is one of the more dangerous localities for avalanche incidents, it falls well behind the two counties that lead the pack in the state, Pitkin and Summit counties, both of which tallied over three dozen avalanche fatalities from 1950 through 2012. Clear Creek County, just over the Continental Divide from Grand County south of Berthoud Pass, also saw its fair share of avalanche deaths during those decades, with 25. Looking at more recent data, the same rough trend holds over the past 20 years. Pitkin has led the state in avalanche deaths since 1998 with 18 while Clear Creek County came in second, at 13, while Summit saw 10 during the same time span.
ease of access is concerning
According to Brian Pollock, director of education with Friends of Berthoud Pass, there are 55 known and documented avalanche paths in the Berthoud Pass area.
"At least half of these reach the road, which means they are close enough to the road to access," Pollock said. "The easy access, in my opinion, is what makes it dangerous to the uninformed."
Pollock noted that, from the parking lot at Berthoud Pass, backcountry riders can reach tree line within 15 to 20 minutes of hiking.
"This ease of access to the backcountry is what concerns us," Pollock added. "Backcountry education information is not as easily accessed as the runs are. Unfortunately we do see users heading out without the essentials (beacon, shovel probe) which makes one wonder what amount of education they might be carrying in their head if they are traveling without gear."
Pollock explained there are no "off days" for avalanches. As such, Friends of Berthoud Pass stresses the absolute need to get education and informed about the dangers presented by the backcountry.
"Start with an awareness class to see if you are truly interested in becoming a backcountry traveler," Pollock said. "Becoming a knowledgeable backcountry user takes time, effort and money. It is an investment in education, as well as in gear."
Greg Foley, field director for Grand County Search and Rescue, knows first hand what results can come from a lack of education and safety equipment.
During his decades with the local volunteer organization, Foley has participated in 12 separate avalanche fatality calls and has been called out for dozens of other instances that did not result in death. Foley said on average search and rescue receives around one to two avalanche calls each season and noted that the Berthoud Pass area, the Gravel Mountain area, which is popular with snowmobilers, and the Rollins Pass area are among Grand County's hottest areas for avalanches.
Foley stressed that response time for Grand County's search and rescue teams are a minimum of one hour and that it typically takes around two hours before team members can reach anyone on site in the field. Advanced team members are sometimes able to arrive within 30 minutes but the odds of saving a person buried by an avalanche after 30 minutes are thin.
Putting a face to avalanche danger
Individuals killed by avalanches tend to be young, with more than 60 percent between the ages of 16 and 35. And, by an overwhelming nine-to-one margin, victims are male. But statistics belie the personal tragedy that defines avalanche deaths.
On New Years Eve 2013, 28-year-old Fraser resident George Dirth was splitboarding with friends when he was caught in an avalanche on Parkview Mountain, north of Granby and just west of Willow Creek Pass. Dirth became buried under several feet of snow and, though his companions located him quickly and opened an air passage, he did not survive.
Roughly two years before that incident, in late January 2012, an avalanche at Winter Park Resort claimed the life of 28-year old Evergreen man, and father of two, Christopher Norris. Norris died after kicking off an inbounds avalanche in Trestle Trees, in the Mary Jane Territory. After his death, Norris's family sued Intrawest over the incident. The case made it all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which, in 2016, ruled that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing, finding in favor of Intrawest.
It was just over one full year earlier that Grand County had witnessed its then most recent avalanche death, on Jan. 17, 2011.
On that day, 26-year-old Jeff Miller, an employee of Smokin' Moe's in Winter Park at the time, headed up into the Hell's Half Acre area of Berthoud Pass near The Fingers on the High Trail Cliffs. Miller, his dog and a friend were headed for the Sevenmile ski trail when a relatively small avalanche separated the group.
It was several hours before Miller's companion realized his friend had not made it down the mountain and initiated a search of the area. Miller was not wearing an avalanche beacon at the time, making it difficult to locate his body.
Searchers recovered his body two days later, after forming a probe line to systematically search the area.
The area of Berthoud Pass that claimed Miller's life is extremely dangerous for backcountry skiers.
Just a few 100 yards away, and a little over five years earlier, a 32-year-old Denver man named Samuel Raymond Teetzen was snowboarding in the same vicinity, slightly northeast of the High Trail Cliffs near Mines 2. Teetzen and a group of his friends were getting some early season backcountry turns in on Nov. 7, 2005 when an avalanche was triggered. Teetzen was not wearing an avalanche beacon when he was buried and his body was not recovered for roughly two hours.
Grand County's deadliest avalanche incident over the past 20 years involved neither skiers nor snowboarders — it was triggered by snowmobilers on Gravel Mountain in late December 2008.
Shortly after Christmas that year, a group of four individuals were riding snowmobiles in the area between Gravel Mountain and Little Gravel Mountain, located north of Granby and west of Grand Lake. On that day, an afternoon avalanche caught three snowmobilers and killed two, including 19-year-old Arvada resident Mark Goetz and 38-year-old Larkspur man Brian Kopp.
In each of these circumstances the forces of nature, often in concert with decisions made by victims, irrevocably changed the lives of many while ending the lives of a few.
If you are headed into Grand County's backcountry this winter have fun, but stay safe. Respect the mountains, understand the danger and be prepared. If you don't, it might be the last decision you ever make.