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Inbounds With The Beast: Avalanches inside ski areas are extremely rare, but they do happen

It was the worst possible news. In the wake of a fatal in-bounds avalanche at Taos Ski Area on January 17, 2019, a witness at Loveland watched a skier enter a closed area, trigger an avalanche and vanish.  Ski Patrol scrambled. The location of the skier was unknown, were they buried? After an intensive search including probing the deposition zone for a snow-entombed body, the all clear was given. The skier had dodged a bullet, but the time, effort and stress experienced by Loveland rescue staff was real. And, with more snow and high winds expected for the next week, avalanche danger would only increase. And increase it did, as the 2019 winter in Colorado would become one of the most active and intense for avalanches across the state.

In bounds avalanches such as the Loveland and Taos incidents are extremely rare, but can happen. Resorts like Loveland and Boulder County’s Eldora do everything they can to mitigate the danger. On Eldora’s steeper terrain runs like West Ridge and Salto are controlled using a combination of explosive charges and ski cutting and compaction techniques by experienced members of the ski patrol. 

A skier scores fresh tracks at Colorado’s Loveland. As equipment has improved and the use of rockered skis and snowboards makes it easier to master deep snow and steep slopes, resorts such as Loveland are opening up new terrain, but the expansions make for tougher days for mountain operations staff who must ensure that terrain is safe to open.

“Our ski patrol uses a combination of approaches to ensure terrain is safe to open,” says Eldora Mountain Resort’s Sam Bass. “They’ll throw charges, do ski cuts and ultimately keep terrain closed if they determine that it’s not safe for people to ski or ride there.

A skier drops into the Salto Glades area of Eldora ski area. This terrain was closed and off-limits in the 1980s, but the ski area has opened it, adding some spice to the family-oriented resort west of Boulder.

But despite the efforts of patrollers across the Rocky Mountains, there have been tragedies. In Colorado 2012 was a particularly bad year, with two deaths: one at Vail and one at Winter Park. 

In the Vail incident, a skier foolishly hiked into a closed part of the mountain with two friends before being swept down steep, cliff-studded terrain into trees. At Winter Park, another skier was caught when the steep slope above a gully released and buried him as he skied below. The terrain was open at the time, and had been skied most of the day prior to the slide.

Vail’s Back Bowls are known for their long – and deep – powder runs. The resort’s ski patrol regularly runs control routes using bombs, ski cuts and other techniques to help compact and stabilize the snow in certain parts of this terrain.

Other incidents include in-bounds slides in 2005 and 2007 and 2006. In 2007 Powderhorn ski patroller Jesse Williams, a Grand Junction resident, was skiing Utah’s The Canyons when he was caught and killed in an avalanche. Slides at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin include a 2005 late season avalanche in open-to-the-public terrain off of Pallavicinithat swept away Boulder resident David Conway and a shocking 2016 slide that captured 15 people, completely burying one skier while partially burying several members other members of the group. This latter incident was particularly notable as the group was skiing with an Arapahoe Basin ski patroller as the mountain worked to open terrain in the Montezuma Bowl sector of the resort. The area had previously been controlled by explosive charges and had already been skied by approximately 40 riders before the party was caught. 

But, according to experts, the Arapahoe Basin incident, while surprising isn’t actually that “surprising”. Because, when it comes to avalanches and snow and steep terrain, there are no certainties. “Snow is one of the most complex materials on earth,” says Karl Birkeland, the director of the US Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center. “Since it exists very close to its melting point, it changes extremely rapidly and its behavior is challenging to predict. As someone who has studied and worked with avalanches for nearly four decades, I am still occasionally surprised by certain avalanche events. “

Arapahoe Basin’s Montezuma Bowl and the area’s new Beavers terrain (which opened for the first time this season) along with Eldora’s Salto glades highlight the management challenges that ski patrollers and snow safety experts face. For many years zones like Salto were closed to skiers. But as ski and snowboard equipment has improved and as existing terrain at resorts become increasingly crowded, and customers demand more powder skiing and authentic experiences, resorts are opening up more natural terrain. Some of these expansions include mellow glades, but many areas are steep, avalanche prone slopes that used to be no-go zones. 

A case in point is Breckenridge, which has given the people what they want with impressive expansions over the past decade into terrain that’s steep, deep and in demand. But while welcomed by advanced skiers and snowboarders, these new zones add additional layers of complexity for mountain operations staff. 

“Typically, at Breckenridge, our first patrollers’ alarms go off as early as 3 a.m.,” says Hunter Mortensen, a Breckenridge Ski Patroller, Avalanche Technician and Avalanche Rescue Dog Program Coordinator with over 15 years of experience. “They arrive early, before daylight, to take manual snow and weather observations on the mountain. A few hours later, two designated avalanche forecasters and the “Master Blasters”, the two people in charge of the explosives, head up the mountain to make a snow and avalanche forecast for the day.”

“The forecasters utilize all of the snow and weather observations to formulate a plan for the day and then assign the majority of the patrol team to specific routes and areas of terrain across the resort,” adds Mortensen. “Once assigned areas of terrain, our patrollers set out to perform avalanche mitigation work, using explosives and ski cutting to break loose hazardous layers of snow, prior to opening terrain to the public or marking areas as closed.”

It is tempting to think that the work that Mortensen and the avalanche experts and ski patrollers do at ski areas across the Rocky Mountains will prevent all in-bounds avalanches. But that’s not the case. Snow scientists are unanimous in their option that because of the complex nature of snow – which can be elastic yet fragile – and the multiple interactions between terrain, snow and weather, it is impossible to mitigate all avalanche hazards completely.

The courts agree with these experts, and – unsurprisingly – have pointed to the same complex factors of snow, weather and terrain to conclude that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing or snowboarding regardless of if you’re inside the operational envelope of a ski area or not. In other words, avalanches are a part and parcel of the mountain environment. 

“Avalanche mitigation is extremely successful, allowing millions of skiers at ski resorts across the country to travel into avalanche terrain with an extremely low risk,” says Birkeland. “Ski patrols can minimize the avalanche danger, they can’t completely eliminate it.  There will always be some uncertainty, and thus there will always be a real – though extremely small – risk of in-bounds avalanches.”

Knowing this, what can skiers and snowboarders who are drawn to the steep and deep do to minimize their risks? Experts have several suggestions: don’t ski alone, don’t enter closed areas, and be aware. 

“It is important for all skiers and riders to be aware of their surroundings and changing conditions, and to observe all posted signs and closures at our resorts every day of the year,” notes Breckenridge’s Mortensen, adding that, “due to the dynamic nature of the weather and snow conditions, gates and terrain closures can change throughout the day. When someone skiing sees an ‘Avalanche Danger’ sign, it is there for a very specific and important reason, and they should take that seriously.”

A skier-triggered avalanche in the Colorado Backcountry. 2019 was a season for the record books, with numerous natural slides, road closures and other mishaps. Travel outside of the operational envelope of Colorado’s ski resorts remained hazardous and most experts advised against it.

It is also worth having a level of searchability to make yourself findable by rescuers. The simplest of these is having a RECCO reflector embedded in your clothing or gear. RECCO reflectors can be found ski and snowboarding gear from a variety of brands including Patagonia, Peak Performance and 686 and in ski boots from Scarpa. In North America alone over 100 search and rescue organizations including ski patrollers at Jackson Hole, Crested Butte, Eldora and Vail use RECCO technology, and the small reflectors – which do not need batteries or maintenance – are easily found by rescuers using a RECCO detector. 

Another option is to wear an avalanche beacon and carry a small pack complete with shovel and probe while skiing. Given that most live recoveries from avalanche burials happen within five minutes of the incident and that the likelihood of survival for victims rapidly falls after that point, having this gear could save you or your partner’s life in the unlikely event of an in-bounds avalanche. 

“Even though people like to say there are ‘No friends on a powder day’”, says Birkeland, “I think it’s always good to ski with a partner on big storm days.  This is true not only for the potential for in-bounds avalanches, but also for the danger of folks falling into tree wells.”

Birkeland adds that while he doesn’t think that, “avalanche gear is absolutely necessary inside a ski resort because the avalanche risk is so low” he’s a big fan of carrying the gear if you already have it. 

“I think that if you own rescue gear it’s a good habit to get into to carry it on big storm days,” says Birkeland. “Especially in the early season as terrain is first being opened for the season.”

Finally, remember that despite the headlines, the chances of being caught in an avalanche while skiing inside the operational envelope of any ski area is extremely small. These events do happen and while they’re part risk than anyone assumes when they go skiing or snowboarding, skiers and ‘boarders in the Rocky Mountains are much more likely to encounter dangerous conditions outside the ropes. 

Because of this, if you’re one of those people who is easily seduced by untracked powder and prone to going outside the ropes for “just one or two turns” you’d be well served by taking an avalanche education course and obtaining the proper equipment (avalanche beacon, shovel and probe) before doing it again. It’s the least you can do to ensure that you are around to ski next week, the week after that and next winter, too.

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