Man rescued in ‘heroic’ effort after being buried in avalanche on Steamboat Resort
Editor’s note: Following the publication of this story, the Steamboat Pilot & Today received additional information about the sequence of events related to the rescue effort. The follow-up story can be found here.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One person was caught and buried in an avalanche at Steamboat Resort midday Sunday. The person was rescued in an effort Dave Hunter, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., called heroic.
“It was an incredible response and an incredible result,” Hunter said.
The persistent hard slab avalanche was human triggered and occurred primarily between Chutes 1 and 2, he said.
The initial call came into mountain dispatch at 12:58 p.m, according to Hunter. Some of the resort’s highest avalanche experts were already at Ski Patrol Headquarters when the slide occurred.
At 1:05 p.m., they were extricating the guest, Hunter said, and by 1:06 or 1:07 p.m., the person was “fully extricated and conscious and breathing.”
They were then transported by ambulance to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center and are currently in good condition, Hunter said.
The avalanche started in an area of terrain that is inbounds but currently closed.
The group of people caught in the slide weren’t skiing out of bounds and did not cross any ropes, Hunter said. They traversed in above Big Meadow, which is open, and below the chutes. It is believed they triggered the avalanche from below.
While several other people were caught in the slide that was propagated from above, only one was completely buried. Another person was buried up to their waist.
On Saturday, a slide occurred in the same geographical area; however, that slide was a result of ongoing avalanche mitigation work, Hunter said.
“There is a reason why we are keeping terrain closed,” Hunter said. “The public needs to bear with us.”
He acknowledges the pressure the resort has been under to open more terrain and the eagerness of skiers to get at the terrain that is still closed.
But what happened on Sunday is precisely why the resort staff continues to perform extensive terrain assessment and management, which includes avalanche control, he said.
Hunter strongly urges everyone to use extra precautions — ski with a friend, check the conditions and “in areas you normally feel comfortable, you need to have your guard up and think about unintended consequences.”
And even that mitigation work is no guarantee.
“Snow is a wild thing,” Hunter said.
While there is “local angst to get into Fish Creek Canyon,” Hunter said, had something happened there, for example, Ski Patrol may not have been able to have responded as quickly and easily.
“And it could end with a different result,” Hunter added.
Recent conditions have created “substantial unstable snowpack,” according to Hunter.
On Saturday, the avalanche danger for the backcountry in Steamboat and the Flat Tops Wilderness Area was high. On Sunday, it went one notch down to considerable.
Conditions remain dangerous, Hunter said, largely because of the 63 inches of snow in October, followed by unseasonably warm weather including rain, and then the approximate 36 inches of snowfall over the past week, along with wind.
Kreston Rohrig, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s dedicated forecaster for the Steamboat area’s backcountry, called the weekend storm “a big test for the northern mountains.”
“There’s a really nasty layer of snow from October sitting near the ground,” he said.
And, in the event of a big snow, a heavy load on top can cause the failure of that bottom layer. Because of a metamorphic process, that October layer has a weak and angular grain, Rohrig explained.
And any storm with “warm, moist air packs a lot of punch,” he said. Which is why they always measure the snow water equivalent as opposed to just measuring the depth.
When traveling into the backcountry, Rohrig advises people pay close attention to the Avalanche Center’s website or mobile app, have avalanche gear and training, and most importantly avoid avalanche terrain altogether when there are warnings. Avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees, he said, and “identify and be aware of terrain traps,” which can be any potential avalanche path that ends in an abrupt terrain change, like a road or a creek bed.
Rohrig encourages people to report their observations to the Avalanche Center.
“The more eyes and ears in the backcountry,” the more they are able to accurately forecast, he said.
Hunter urges people to also pay close attention to the information on the resort’s website.
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