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Fraser Winter Park police investigating possible murder-suicide

Following the discovery of two bodies inside a Fraser apartment, police are investigating their deaths as a potential murder-suicide.

According to police, the bodies of a man and a woman were found inside an apartment on South Zerex Street shortly after 10 p.m. Friday. Both had suffered traumatic injuries.

Police said a friend of one of the victims discovered the couple’s bodies after one of them did not show up for work on Friday and failed to respond to numerous calls and texts.

On Saturday, police identified the deceased as Lucas W. Reilly, 38, and Kristin M. Reilly, 32.

Kristin Reilly’s family said the two were recently married. They were listed as residents of Fraser.

An autopsy to determine the cause and manner of death is scheduled for Monday, according to police.

The Fraser Winter Park Police Department said investigators are looking into the possibility that this incident was a murder-suicide, but are awaiting autopsy results before making any further determination.

Advanced backcountry travelers more likely to be involved in avalanches

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The snowfall has been lacking so far this season causing the Steamboat Resort to move back its start date to Dec. 1 due to a “well below average” snowpack.

“Sometimes we have good starts to the season, and sometimes we have not so good starts to the season,” said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website snowalarm.com.

One potentially bright side of the lack of early season snow, Weissbluth said, is that early snow often turns into a rotten snowpack in the backcountry, which can lead to avalanches.

When the pandemic closed the ski resorts in March, there was a noted uptick in people turning to the backcountry to meet their skiing needs, and that increased backcountry activity is anticipated to continue this winter.

The report

A report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center released earlier this month studied avalanche incidents last season and found that most people who were involved in an avalanche had significant levels of avalanche experience.

“This begs the question: Does formal, field-based training or avalanche experience increase or decrease your chance of getting caught in an avalanche?” the report asks.

The authors of the report, Ethan Greene the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Spencer Logan who maintains their avalanche data, say they cannot answer that question with the data available.

They do say that those with formal, field-based training or avalanche experience may put themselves in more precarious situations, venturing into avalanche prone areas not out of ignorance but in confidence.

The report looked at 86 different avalanche incidents involving 126 people from last season. Of those, 88 people were caught up in the avalanche, six were fully buried and six people died.

Other studies have explored the relationship between education and involvement with avalanches but in many of those, researchers knew what classes or experience people had participated in prior to the avalanche. In this study, they were limited because they could not talk to all the people involved in an avalanche in Colorado last year, so they devised a way to classify education and experience of a person with avalanches based on the information they already had.

They found that nearly 40% of people caught in an avalanche or in a group with someone caught in an avalanche had taken a Level 1 avalanche course. About 70% of people caught in avalanches had intermediate or advanced experience.

Avalanches are rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being low and 5 being extreme. The current avalanche rating from the avalanche center for the Steamboat and Flat Tops area is low, though Vail and Summit areas as well as several other areas to the south are considered moderate risk.

The review of last year’s data was consistent with previous research that showed most avalanches happen when the area has a Level 2 Moderate or a Level 3 Considerable rating. About 60% of avalanches happened when the area was given a moderate avalanche rating.

An interesting finding was the difference in who was involved in an avalanche before and after the ski resorts closed because of the pandemic. They noticed that as many skiers moved to the backcountry after March 13, more of the people involved in avalanches were advanced backcountry travelers.

“As recreation increased after pandemic closures of ski areas and other activities, easily-accessible areas became crowded and tracked up. More skilled recreators used those skills to push into less-familiar terrain or explore new areas,” the report says.

Throughout the 2019-20 season most of the people involved in avalanches had either intermediate or advanced levels of experience, something that has been shown in research before. A 2002 study went so far as to say that avalanche education did not reduce exposure to avalanches, but Greene and Logan put it differently.

“Instead, our results suggest people were using their training and experience to spend more time traveling in avalanche terrain, or traveling during more avalanche-prone conditions,” the report says.

They also saw a striking difference in number of avalanches that happened in considerable risk areas before and after resorts closed. While half of the avalanches in a Level 3 Considerable area studied took place after March 13, just 17% of the rest of the days in the season had been forecast to have considerable risk.

This was another indication to Greene and Logan that backcountry travelers were accepting more risk to avalanche exposure when they ventured out this spring. Overall, the report suggests that more experienced backcountry travelers put themselves in situations that make their additional experience a wash when it comes to risk.

“People that invest in avalanche education and gain experience in the mountains typically do so because they spend time in avalanche terrain, which increases their exposure to avalanches. In aggregate, the additional exposure may offset the application of risk-reduction strategies,” the report says.

The takeaway: “We should all take a hard look at the assumptions we make about ourselves and our riding partners.”

Greene and Logan question whether people are using their experience to avoid avalanches, make good decisions and properly assess hazards or if they are relying on experience that is built on a series of positive feedback events to get by.

“A common tendency is to look for reasons why we would have done something different or why our education or experience would have produced a different result. This tendency, known as the blind-sight bias, can limit our ability to avoid a similar outcome when faced with similar circumstances,” the report says.

Greene and Logan admit there are limitations to their findings because of the small sample size. They were only able to use data about avalanches that were reported to them from one season in one state and they were only able to collect data about avalanches that involved people.

Still, the findings make logical sense to many that have to deal with avalanches.

An image taken April 8, 2018, by an unknown citizen avalanche observer of a complex slid path in the vicinity of Fish Creek Canyon. It was described by the observer as two slides in one. (Courtesy photo)

An ounce of prevention

Dan Gilchrist, a team leader with Routt County Search and Rescue said that there are several traps that people can fall into that gets them in trouble in the backcountry.

One of the most important parts of avalanche awareness classes is to be able to identify and avoid avalanche terrain. He said that while having more expertise could potentially lead to someone putting themselves in situations where they are more likely to be involved with an avalanche, he feels the expertise allows people to make good decisions to avoid being caught up in a slide.

“I agree that people that put themselves in those situations are more likely to be affected by those situations,” Gilchrist said. “But I also feel that people that are educated in that respect are also less likely because if they make sound judgments they can avoid that.”

Gilchrist said that he is worried that this year in particular new backcountry users will get themselves in trouble because of their lack of experience. He said he anticipates a lot of people to head to the backcountry this winter, which could push newbies to do more than they are comfortable with.

He also stressed that if someone is in trouble they should call Search and Rescue as soon as possible as it often takes them a while to get to where someone is in the backcountry. Search and Rescue does not charge for its services.

“We’re there for people to help. We want people to be prepared not only in their knowledge of the backcountry but being willing to call for help,” Gilchrist said.

Another potential trap is the scarcity of winter sports, Gilchrist said. Because of the uncertainty with ski areas this season and people’s pent up desire to lace up their ski boots it could lead them to get overly ambitious early in the season, especially when snow can be weaker in spots.

The continental United States generally gets a dry early season snow, which creates a somewhat rotten layer of snow on the bottom where as now, on the coasts normally has more moisture. Gilchrist said this can make the snowpack more fragile and have more avalanches.

Past students go over the proper use of an avalanche beacon before trekking into the backcountry at the top of Rabbit Ears Pass for an avalanche awareness class offered by Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Know before you go

Gilchrist said that it is important to know before you go by reading the forecast and understanding how the snowpack has changed in an area throughout the year.

“If you are skiing an area on a regular basis, and you know what happened a week ago of a month ago in the snowpack that can help you identify the danger,” Gilchrist said. “Dig into the snow, be inquisitive about what is in there and watch for red flags and warning signs.”

Things like storm snow, where it has snowed a lot in a short period of time, high winds and rapidly increasing temperatures are all things that can contribute to avalanches. Gilchrist suggested that people go into the backcountry with people that are on the same level of experience and have the same risk threshold.

Routt County Search and Rescue has not been on many avalanche calls lately with the most recent one incident commander Kristia Check Hill can remember being several years ago. Gilchrist said that most avalanche rescues are done by someone nearby simply because it takes them too long to get there.

Check Hill said that everyone going into the backcountry should have a beacon, shovel and a probe in case there is an avalanche. When they go out on a rescue, everyone on the rescue team has a beacon not only to help find someone, but also because they often are traveling through avalanche risks to get to someone.

Not only is it important to have these items, but the biggest thing is practicing with it and knowing how to properly use it, Check Hill said.

“When you have these tools, which are all great and you need to have them, know how to use them,” Check Hill said. “The time you are there is not the time to pull out the instruction manual.”

She said when Search and Rescue practices, they will bury something that feels like a body in the snow and practice finding it. She also said it is important to know what kinds of equipment people in the group have, if they had a beacon and what they were wearing.

“Those kind of things you don’t think about, what your buddy was wearing, but it could help you see clues on the mountain on the debris field,” Check Hill said.

She emphasized that it is important for everyone to have a beacon to find each other if there is an avalanche and to know how to use properly to help other people in the group.

“It is important for everyone in the group too have a beacon and a shovel and a probe and to know how to use it,” Check Hill said. “Because my life is depending on you knowing how to use it to find me and vice versa.”

To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.

Letter: Grand County Pet Pals thanks Jack Forte Foundation

As the supportive arm of the Grand County Animal Shelter, the Grand County Pet Pals would like to thank the Jack Forte Foundation for their very loyal support of our organization. We are overcome with gratitude, during these especially challenging times, to have received such a generous grant award.

Because of your continued support, we are able to provide our Grand County residents with more assistance in our mission of having their pets spayed and neutered, and of providing medical care to the many homeless pets of Grand County.

Thank you so much to Cheryl, Marsha, and Jon, and all of the fine folks representing the Jack Forte Foundation. We are humbled by your generosity and appreciate all of the things you have done to improve the lives of the residents in our county and the animals in our care. Many thanks for helping us to continue our mission!

— Lynda GumesonGrant, coordinator for the Grand County Pet Pals

Steamboat Resort opens Tuesday with 70 acres of terrain, 12 trails

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Resort will open Tuesday with over 70 acres of terrain including three lifts and 12 trails, according to a release from the resort Saturday.

The opening of the resort was initially pushed back because they did not feel they had enough trails ready to allow for social distancing. But after the delay, they have built up a snowpack similar to what the resort had last year when it opened early after a snowy October.

“We had a really exciting early season last year, and this year it’s just taking a little longer to get those temperatures and the natural snowfall from Mother Nature, but our snowmakers have been really working hard to get this terrain ready,” said Maren Franciosi, spokesperson for the resort.

Skiers will use the gondola, Christie Peak Express and the Bashor lifts to get to the 12 open trails. Boulevard, Right-O-Way, upper Giggle Gulch, Sitz, Sitz Back, Stampede, lower Yoo Hoo, Heavenly Daze, Jess’ Cut Off, Short Cut and Vogue will all be open. The Lil’ Rodeo terrain park will also be open.

Crews are continuing to make snow on open terrain as well as build the foundation on more runs.

Free parking is available at the Meadows and Upper Knoll parking lots with the latter operating as a skier-drop off location. Drivers can take a shuttle from the Meadows lot which are running at half capacity.

The resort released its safety plan for operations earlier this month after getting the signoff from state officials. Before coming to the resort, guests are encouraged to read about the various protocols and guidelines that have been put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Masks will be required throughout, and access to mountain lodges will be restricted to using the restroom and picking up grab-and-go food. Guests are expected to follow signage that communicates expectations throughout the resort.

Winter Park Resort aims to open on Thursday

Winter Park Resort plans to open for the 2020-21 winter season at 9 a.m. Thursday, pending state approval.

The resort announced the anticipated opening date on Saturday, citing recent snow accumulation and successful snow-making efforts this month as the reasons why the resort is about to open.

“We’re stoked to open for the winter season and welcome skiers, riders and adventurers to play, reset, and recharge,” said Sky Foulkes, president and COO of Winter Park Resort, in a statement.

“We’ve planned, anticipated and prepared for our winter opening since launching our successful summer operations. We couldn’t be more excited to kick off winter and venture out again.”

The resort has modified operations this year due to COVID-19.

Winter Park recently launched “Shred Another Day,” a guide to help guests know what to expect at the resort. Visit “Shred Another Day” on the resort’s website for more about what to anticipate.

As previously announced, there are currently no lift tickets available, so anyone wanting to access the mountain will need a season pass or other previously purchased lift access product.

Two people found dead inside Fraser apartment

Officers with the Fraser Winter Park Police Department found two people’s bodies inside a Fraser apartment Friday night.

According to police, a man and a woman were found dead inside an apartment on South Zerex Street shortly after 10 p.m. Friday. Both had suffered traumatic injuries. Their identities are being withheld pending family notification.

Police did not provide further details on the victims’ injuries. A news release says the initial investigation revealed that a friend of one of the victims had gone to the apartment after the person did not show up for work on Friday and failed to respond to numerous calls and texts.

The friend was able to gain access to the apartment and discovered the two bodies inside.

Police then secured a search warrant for the apartment through Grand County District Court. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation is assisting with processing the scene.

Police said more information will be released as it becomes available.

The Grand County Sheriff’s Office, Grand County EMS, East Grand Fire Department, and the Grand County Coroner’s Office all assisted in the response.

State: New COVID outbreaks at Kremmling Town Hall, bar in Winter Park

The state has reported three new COVID-19 outbreaks in Grand County, including one at Kremmling Town Hall.

According to Colorado’s outbreak data, two staff members for the town of Kremmling have tested positive for COVID-19, and this meets the state’s definition of an outbreak.

An additional staff member also has been logged as a probable COVID-19 case. The illnesses were determined as an outbreak on Nov. 17, according to the data.

Another newly reported outbreak lists a social gathering in Grand as the cause of four COVID-19 cases, which was determined Nov. 17. No other details about the gathering were provided.

The state also reported an outbreak at a bar in Winter Park, determined Nov. 24 after two staff members tested positive.

On Nov. 10, Kremmling’s mayor lambasted Grand County Public Health’s response to the pandemic.

Grand County has seen 167 resident cases in the past two weeks as of Friday, meaning roughly 1 in 100 county residents have tested positive for COVID in the previous 14 days. Two people remain hospitalized.

Man charged with eluding police

A man was arrested after eluding police officers in Hot Sulphur Springs during a traffic stop.

Around 5:15 p.m. Nov. 14, Grand County Sheriff’s deputies attempted to stop a blue pickup truck belonging to Stephen Branstetter, 41, to serve him a protection order when Branstetter allegedly sped away.

According to an arrest affidavit, police saw Branstetter turn without a signal and noted his truck was missing a headlight when they turned on their lights. Instead of yielding, Branstetter allegedly sped to his house and ran inside.

While Branstetter was inside, police towed his truck to the sheriff’s impound yard, where it was discovered the registration was expired.

In addition to the protection order, the affidavit says Branstetter has four active warrants and had his driving privileges suspended because of not paying child support. 

Branstetter faces charges of vehicular eluding creating a risk of injury, six counts of failing to appear in court, failing to use a turn signal, operating a motor vehicle with license suspended, displayed expired registration and operated a vehicle with defective or missing head lamp.

Branstetter has previously alleged to the Sky-Hi News that Grand County law enforcement officers are harassing him.

Branstetter is scheduled to be in court on Feb. 16.

Poll: What is your favorite thing to do in Grand during the winter?

Last week’s Sky-Hi News poll question and results were as follows:

What are your plans for the Thanksgiving holiday? (290 votes)

• Nothing, there’s a pandemic — 60%
• We’re having a small gathering — 27%
• What guidelines? We’re having a multi-household party — 14%

Answer this week’s question below.

Sky-Hi News poll question

What is your favorite thing to do in Grand during the winter?

View Results

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Brower: The SOS campaign that really could help to save our economy this winter

Are things really so dire with COVID that Grand County’s winter season could go down the drain?

In a word, yes.

If the spread of COVID in the county gets to the point where our local department of public health must move our COVID level to the highest restriction of purple, well then there will be a shutdown that would essentially limit organized skiing and activities like that (restaurants, bars, other public venues) to the point where they are closed.

So all of us in the county should be working to keep the COVID level at its current level of orange, or red. Purple will be very bad news for business in the county.

Which is the reason the Winter Park and Fraser Chamber of Commerce, the Grand County Department of Economic Development, the Grand County Colorado Tourism Board and many others are getting on board with a public awareness blitz called Save Our Season.

Many readers will have already seen ads, posters, window stickers and such urging that people take precautions so that we can all work together to save our season. My favorite, however, is one unofficial notice I saw on the front door of Lion Head Coffee in Granby. It wasn’t a fancy flier. It was a simple scribble on a piece of white paper. It says: “Please wear a mask or they will take our ski season away!!”

This large, county wide program is premised on the simple notion that if people wear masks, social distance and wash their hands, then we can keep the spread of COVID down to the point where we don’t go into the red zone or, God forbid, the purple zone.

So the Save Our Season message also features the idea of the four “Ws”. That is: Wear a Mask, Wash Your Hands, Watch Your Distance and Work From Home.

For the civil and political libertarians out there who bristle at the thought of government “telling” them what to do because they have their “freedom,” this program is something that they should embrace. It is, after all, not a law or a governmental dictate. It’s a program by the business community suggesting in clear terms that people should follow some basic guidelines to protect the local economy.

It’s also a program that goes out of its way to suggest measures that would forestall the need for government to step in and make mandates about shutdowns for further mandatory restrictions on business.

Catherine Ross with the Winter Park chamber and DiAnn Butler, the county’s economic developer, are working together to get this messaging out there. Butler and Ross are promoting it through email blasts and cooperative messaging. Both say there will be social media messaging, email campaigns, fliers, posters and door hangers (and other tactics) to get the message out there.

And remember, this isn’t targeted only to locals. If summer is any gauge, there will be many visitors in the county starting soon. They need to get the message too, especially if they come from some of the states where there’s been an odd sort of disdain about measures like mask wearing and social distancing.

Ross said the program is similar to one she learned about from chamber member Sarah Bradford, who has businesses in Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. Steamboat has an SOS program, she told Ross, and Ross and others embraced the idea behind the program. The good thing is it’s even more likely to be effective if two neighboring resort counties embrace it.

Nobody here is “ordering” anyone to do what needs to be done. People are pleading and begging with a good awareness campaign. It just makes sense.

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He offers free and confidential business management coaching to anyone who wants to start or expand a business in Grand County. He can be reached by calling 970-531-0632 or at patrickbrower@kapoks.org.