This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
Renowned avalanche researcher Dale Atkins wanted to see the carnage first-hand.
He skied up Stevens Gulch Road below Grays and Torreys after the early March avalanches, crossing massive debris piles laced with splintered trees. As he climbed toward treeline below Kelso Mountain, the white snow turned dusty red.
“Like we would see from a dust event,” Atkins said. “But it wasn’t desert dust. The snow to my right was white. While around this jumbled, tangled mess of crushed trees, it was dark red. I realized it was dust from pulverized bark on trees just getting crushed and thrashed. I think people are going to be stunned and amazed as they head off to do their adventures in the backcountry this summer. There are plenty of surprises waiting for us as we head out into the mountains right now.”
The 2018-19 winter in Colorado held plenty of surprises for avalanche watchers. The avalanche cycle in March stirred once-in-a-lifetime slides. Eight men lost their lives in slides, all of them beloved figures in their tight-knit mountain communities. Four of them were fathers.
It was a tragic season for fatalities and one that avalanche researchers will be studying for a long time, trying to draw information that could help reduce the risk of future avalanches, but also place the season’s historic slide activity in context.
“There are a lot of lessons learned and we are still sort of processing that stuff,” said Ethan Greene, the 14-year director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which this season counted a record 46 people caught in avalanches.
That includes seven skiers in Rocky Mountain National Park earlier this month who were swept — uninjured — down steep, popular couloirs in several skier-triggered avalanches.
“Certainly a lot of close calls this year,” Greene said. “The difference between a close call and a tragic accident is a very narrow margin. Looking back, I’m always impressed at how people can get caught in a very large avalanche and survive and how small an avalanche people can get caught in and not survive. There is a lot of chance and luck.”
Luck makes gleaning insight and lessons from avalanches even more of a challenge. Especially this season, where half the fatal accidents involved skiers on slopes that barely tipped past 30 degrees, the angle at which snow can slip and move downhill.
They weren’t being reckless or disregarding signs of danger. They were just skiing in a season where the layers of the snowpack were strong enough to hold months of snow. Until they weren’t. And when those layers broke, the results were catastrophic.
Avalanche fatalities in 2018-19
In 2018, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center fielded reports of 46 people caught in avalanches, 16 of them buried and eight who did not survive their burial. That is the highest number of people caught and buried the agency has recorded and two more fatalities above the average for avalanche deaths the state sees every season.
- Jan. 5: Senator Beck Basin. Peter Marshall, 40, from Longmont, was a student in a three-day avalanche safety course. (link)
- Jan. 21: Green Mountain, near the Markley Hut south of Aspen. Arin Trook, 48, from Aspen, was skiing with a friend after a weekend in the remote backcountry hut. (link)
- Feb. 16: Near Pearl Pass Road, near Crested Butte. Owen Green, 27, of Aspen and Michael Goerne, 37, of Carbondale, were training for the Grand Traverse backcountry ski race and skiing along the race’s 40-mile route. (link)
- Feb. 19: Temptation avalanche path, Bear Creek drainage, south of Telluride. Salvador Garcia-Stance, 47, from Telluride was skinning near a popular trail along Bear Creek when snowboarders above him triggered an avalanche. (link)
- Mar. 3: Near Lizard Head Pass south of Telluride. Scott Spencer, 53, of Telluride, was skiing a low-angle slope with his dog near the Matterhorn Nordic trailhead.(link)
- Mar. 7: Near Jones Pass, west of Empire. Hans Berg, 48, a photographer and guide with Powder Addiction snowcat skiing, had just finished photographing clients when the avalanche broke above him. (link)
- Mar. 9: Crested Butte South. Stephan Martel, 25, of Gunnison was shoveling the roof of a building in the community south of Crested Butte. (link)
Snow depths at ski areas and measuring stations reached record levels, but total snowfall did not necessarily set new benchmarks. That means many resorts saw heavy storms that delivered tons of snow in short spans, building up a base that lingers today. It was those big bursts of heavy snow that stressed weak base layers buried deep in the snowpack, often near the ground, that stirred exceptionally dangerous conditions.
“We have had bigger storms that didn’t produce avalanches of this magnitude. We’ve had wetter storms. We’ve had more accumulation. But this time the snowpack seemed to support most of the snow for a long time before it became too great. In the past, avalanches have run earlier in the storm or the season,” said Atkins, who looked back for comparisons to the Front Range blizzard of 2003, or the 1995 storms that buried the state’s central and southern mountains, but couldn’t find avalanche activity that compared to March this year.
The storms in February 1986 stirred avalanches that made history across the state.
“As impressive as ’86 was, it pales to March 2019,” Atkins said. “Which really sends us a long way back in time to find something statewide. I bet we probably end up going back to the late 1800s to find anything similar.”
Greene said his team of forecasters debated and labored over their decision on March 7 to declare extreme avalanche danger across four of 10 regions of the state. It was the first time CAIC forecasters had cast an extreme-danger warning across such a large swath of the Colorado mountains. The unprecedented forecast urged everyone to avoid avalanche terrain, warning that large and historic-sized avalanches were likely and even certain in some areas.
“I never thought we would do that. It was a source of a lot of debate about how we were going to handle it, and I think the group did a really good job in deciding it was time to put out warnings of that nature. I think the decision and the forecast was verified by what we saw. I really hope we don’t see another one like that while I’m still in this position.”
The CAIC and Colorado Department of Transportation worked closely during that early March avalanche cycle. Typically, the department uses about 1,080 explosives a year in avalanche paths over Colorado’s roadways, with low-snow years like 2017-18 seeing only 475 detonations. This season, CDOT hurled 1,534 explosives into avalanche paths, many in that extraordinary two-week span of March. Avalanches buried highways, destroyed homes and trenched drainages where no slides had ever been recorded.
“Obviously CDOT had to perform mitigation in areas and paths that we typically have not had to in past years and perform mitigation more often in areas that we have traditionally controlled,” said Kane Schneider, the department’s deputy maintenance superintendent. “All that said, I believe that this season has certainly made our avalanche program and relationship with CAIC stronger and has reinforced to all of us that even though we have sectional boundaries in our avalanche program, we are really just one big, efficient team working together across those boundaries in order to keep our roads as safe as we can.”
Two people died during that extraordinary avalanche cycle in March. One man was killed when snow slid from a roof he was clearing in Crested Butte. Another man was killed in an avalanche while working as a photographer for a backcountry ski operation on Jones Pass near Winter Park.
“To only have two people killed in that period, both people at work, while tragic it’s amazing to me that we didn’t see any recreationalists killed in that stretch,” Greene said. “Part of that is maybe due to us putting out warnings, and most of it is people recognizing the conditions and heeding those warnings and choosing safe recreation.”
Going into the 2018-19 ski season, Colorado and many Western states reported a downturn in avalanche fatalities, with deaths falling below historical averages. But with such small numbers, a single accident with multiple victims can reverse a state’s downward trend, like in April 2013, when five men were killed in a slide near Loveland Pass, driving the state’s avalanche death count to a high of 11.
So avalanche forecasters were hardly celebrating the dip in avalanche incidents. But they were seeing signs that backcountry skiers, snowmobilers and climbers were more aware of hazards and paying attention to forecasts.
Maybe, they hoped, a sweeping push by backcountry gear-makers, retail stores and forecasters, to foment a grassroots avalanche awareness campaign was taking root and changing behaviors.
While that hope still lingers, common themes began to emerge this season that caused concern. Namely, and this is a mantra repeated often by CAIC forecasters, that exceptional storms produce exceptional avalanches. Travelers in familiar terrain can forget that.
“The Jones Pass avalanche, that was probably a case where they were thinking about how they could avoid triggering avalanches and were not thinking about natural avalanches falling from above them and that got them in trouble,” Greene said. “But that’s one of the greatest problems with avalanches. Even usual conditions can result in unusual avalanches. So backcountry travelers really need to think not just about the snow under their feet but what’s above them and then what’s far above them.”
If there’s a theme that Atkins sees across the accidents this season, it’s backcountry travelers sometimes letting their guard down.
“People don’t think they are going into a problem area likely because they’ve been in similar situations before,” Atkins said. “It’s not about thinking about what you might have experienced in the past. It’s thinking about what you might experience today and how that’s different than what you’ve experienced in the past.”
Jon Donaldson spent the season directing a crew of backcountry guides for The Eleven Experience’s Irwin snowcat operation off Scarp Ridge west of Crested Butte. In early December, an avalanche released in a tiny pocket of snow, sweeping three people on his boot-packing crew down the slope, leaving them rattled but uninjured. It was the last section of snow the team had not stomped — breaking up the layers of new snow and faceted crystals on the ground, reducing the risk of a slide later in the season — across more than 1,100 acres of terrain.
A season like this, Donaldson said, helps reveal the complex challenges of snow safety not just to people new to the backcountry, but also to grizzled vets like himself.
Donaldson canceled a couple of snowcat trips booked during the extreme-danger avalanche cycle not because of threats on his ski terrain but because of hazards looming above the Kebler Pass road the guest-filled cat travels to reach the Irwin base lodge. “Young and old alike can take a lot out of a season like this. It was an eye opening season for all of us.”
Doug Stenclik has seen his Cripple Creek Backcountry shops in Carbondale, Aspen and Vail evolve into community resources for backcountry travelers. After a season like this, he sees the need for avalanche education that focuses on recognizing safe and unsafe terrain and appeals to a wider range of backcountry skiers.
Make more journalism like this possible with a Colorado Sun membership, starting at just $5 a month.
“In the past, people were backcountry skiing for peak-bagging and getting into good, steep powder, so a lot of the curriculum around avalanche education set up for more ambitious goals,” said Stenclik, whose first opened Cripple Creek Backcountry in Carbondale in 2012. “Now it’s more mainstream, with people coming into the sport of backcountry skiing with a wide range of skiing abilities and fitness and avalanche backgrounds. So I think it’s best to offer more of a sampling of how to have fun in the backcountry at all these different levels.”
He is working with a local guiding outfit in Aspen to craft easier outings that might not prepare skiers for aggressive mountaineering on remote alpine peaks, but help them learn how to make good decisions in less risky terrain.
“Ski touring does not have to equate to risking your life,” Stenclik said. “A lot of people should know you can go ski touring — not on groomed terrain at a resort — and there not be any risk. I don’t think that message is really shared as often as it needs to be.”