132 avalanches reported last week in Colorado Rockies, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Charles Pitman of the Summit County Rescue Group utters the same five-word phrase several times when relaying the importance of reporting an avalanche:
“Causing an avalanche isn’t illegal.”
Pitman is a member of the volunteer Summit County Rescue Group, a nonprofit organization that responds to backcountry emergencies in all weather conditions and all times of the year. After Summit County and the surrounding area received its first larger snowfalls of the 2017-18 winter season within the past week, Pitman and the rescue group are working to remind backcountry recreators during this busy holiday season that sharing accounts of avalanches, even if you’ve triggered one, is the right thing to do.
“I think the problem is people in the backcountry think they will be in trouble for kicking an avalanche off,” Pitman said. “Yes, it’s a scary situation, but you won’t get in trouble.”
With sunny skies in the forecast for the New Year’s holiday weekend, the rescue group Friday also wanted to remind skiers and others that just because it may not have snowed in a few days doesn’t mean avalanche danger doesn’t exist.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Friday categorized the following areas as having “considerable” avalanche conditions: Vail and Summit County, the Sawatch Range, the Front Range, Aspen, Gunnison and Steamboat & Flat Tops. That’s a 3 on a scale from 1-5.
The CAIC added that though the snowpack from recent storms is slowly stabilizing, avalanche conditions remain dangerous in the northern and central mountains after observers easily triggered avalanches in the past week.
“A lot of people, when the avalanche conditions get really high, more and more backcountry travelers are aware of that,” Pitman said. “Actually, sometimes more calls come in when conditions are more moderate. But, of course when the CAIC says conditions are moderate, just because CAIC says danger is ‘low to moderate,’ it doesn’t mean ‘low to moderate’ everywhere. And right now, of course, it’s wind-loading. It was wind-loading huge yesterday, and will again today and tomorrow.”
As those high winds in and around Summit County continue to shift snow, sometimes carrying it a long way and dumping it on the lee sides of mountains, rescue group members like Pittman are remaining on their toes. The winds in and around the Front Range were so hazardous on Friday that Eldora Mountain Resort in Nederland closed for the day.
“The wind definitely has a dramatic effect on the snow conditions,” Pitman said. “It picks up, scours off, on some of the peaks, and if the wind is coming out of the west, it practically scours all snow off the western side and dumps it on the eastern side. If savvy in the backcountry, don’t just be aware of what happened last night or yesterday, look at the past couple of weeks.”
Pitman’s worst nightmare is a situation where a skier may think there is a great-looking pillow of fresh snow, say, down through a gulley. But it’s actually very tender, and ready to slide.
So he stays up to speed with his 7 a.m. updates from CAIC.
“As a mission coordinator,” he said, “it gives me a sense of what to expect today, to stay really close to my radio.”
Within the past week, Pitman said the rescue group only requested one helicopter via Flight for Life Colorado. It was at 2:17 p.m. on Dec. 26, when technician Brian Metzger, on patrol for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, witnessed an avalanche on Loveland Pass. It occurred near a notorious avalanche chute across the highway from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, known as “The Professor.”
In this case, once dispatch notified this week’s rescue group mission coordinator, SCRG president Ben Butler, to request a status check of Flight for Life helicopters, flights had been grounded due to high winds. Shortly thereafter, Pitman said A-Basin ski patrol confirmed there was nothing to think the avalanche was not caused naturally.
That’s just one of many avalanche situations that occur in the backcountry. And though in this case the call for a helicopter ended up not being necessary, the Summit County Rescue Group says reporting an avalanche like the one at The Professor on Dec. 26 helps to organize any potential rescue efforts. To report an avalanche in which there were no burials or injuries, call the non-emergency number for Summit County Dispatch at 970-668-8300. And if there is an emergency such as burial or injuries from an avalanche, the rescue group says to call 911.
“And an additional advantage of reporting an avalanche,” Pitman said, “is that the CAIC might choose to send someone into the slide in order to determine a potential cause, and get crucial information on the local snow conditions. All of this information goes to populate their information data base (which is) so important in helping develop near-term avalanche forecasts.”
HOLIDAY WEEK AVALANCHES
As of Friday afternoon, CAIC listed 132 total known and estimated avalanches having occurred in the state since last Friday, Dec. 22. The most avalanche observations occurred in the CAIC’s “Front Range” zone (72), followed by 18 in the Vail and Summit County zone, 16 in Aspen, 15 in Gunnison, six in the Sawatch Range, four in Steamboat & Flat Tops and one in Northern San Juan.
As for more localized zones here in Summit County, CAIC listed Loveland Pass with 43 avalanche observations since Dec. 22, while Berthoud Pass registered 15, the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel with five and Cameron and Fremont passes with two each.
The majority of those submitted observations occurred above tree line (59), while 38 occurred below tree line and 35 were listed at tree line. After Christmas Day’s snow, Tuesday received the most avalanche observations, with 41. That followed 24 on Monday and 25 on Sunday. Since, 16 were reported on Wednesday, six on Thursday and just one Friday morning.
And the majority of the observations also occurred with a north (47) or east (42) aspect, with 16 more at northeast and 15 more at southeast. Just eight avalanches were observed with a south aspect, while one each occurred northwest and west.
With holidays crowds lingering around Summit County this weekend, Pitman shared these words of wisdom:
“Always have three items in your pack: a beacon, a probe pole and a shovel,” he said, “because you may save your buddy’s life.”
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