Expert: The danger may not be extreme but the threat is still there
Steamboat Springs — The backcountry surrounding Steamboat Springs was thought by many to be benign in terms of avalanche danger, but March 18, 2001, changed that.
That day Routt County resident Sean Clancy, 34, died while skiing on Farwell Mountain, not far from Steamboat Lake State Park.
Prior to this year, it had been nearly three decades since the last avalanche death here a skier died in a snow slide on the Steamboat Ski Area in December 1972. Since then, the avalanche danger within the boundaries of the ski area has been effectively managed.
But Knox Williams figures it’s only a matter of time until someone is buried in Fish Creek Canyon, outside the ski area boundary, just northeast of Steamboat Springs.
“It’s remarkable there haven’t been fatalities up Fish Creek,” Williams said. “We know it’s avalanche terrain and we know there are triggers. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a fatality up there.”
Williams, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, vacationed in Steamboat this week.
And although skiing was on his holiday agenda, he wasn’t planning to visit the backcountry.
That decision wasn’t based on any forecast of avalanche danger but instead on the attractiveness of the lift-served skiing on Mount Werner.
Williams’ office, a program of the Colorado Geological Survey, issues avalanche forecasts and focuses on informing and educating the public about avalanche danger in three distinct areas they include working with ski areas on the danger within their boundaries, the potential danger for backcountry recreationists and the potential danger for motorists in Colorado’s mountain passes.
The Avalanche Information Center relies on several sources of funding: mining severance taxes, highway funding and private contributions.
The avalanche triggers Williams is referring to include the many skiers who access the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest via well-marked control gates on the northern boundary of the ski area.
Williams knows as well as anyone that backcountry recreation in Colorado is growing, but he’s encouraged by the fact that the number of avalanche deaths in Colorado has stabilized even as skiers, snowmobilers and snowshoers increase the chances of human-triggered avalanches.
He likes to think the avalanche forecasting and education his group undertakes helps to minimize the number of people who are caught in avalanches annually.
“I can’t guarantee we’re having an impact. But we know use is going up as the population increases, and fatalities have been pretty flat at six a year for almost 20 years, Williams said.
Clancy’s death fits into a pattern that is reflected in many more people accessing backcountry snow in ways that weren’t practiced just 10 years ago.
Clancy and his friends were using snowmobiles to ferry one another to untracked powder skiing.
What made their case a little unusual was the fact that the men were using traditional Alpine skiing gear instead of the Nordic telemark equipment most often associated with the backcountry.
“I have no problems with using snowmobiles,” Williams said. “Certainly, you can make a lot of laps that way. But what it does is draw new people into the backcountry. They don’t have to learn a new skill and they don’t have to buy new equipment.”
Williams thinks sometimes the news media goes overboard in covering the prevailing avalanche threat in the Colorado mountains.
“Right after Thanksgiving Day, there were three to four avalanches and a newspaper called the danger extreme,” Williams said. “The word extreme is way over-used. It wasn’t extreme (in that case) it was just localized.”
Too often, Williams said, people focus on big, dramatic slides when they think of avalanche danger.
But even in an area not prone to avalanches, like Rabbit Ears Pass, Williams cautions the danger is there.
“If you look hard enough, you’ll find little pockets of avalanche terrain in fairly benign areas,” he said.
“It doesn’t take much of a slide to bury someone.”
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