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“Rotten” snow layer causes rare in-bounds avalanche at Steamboat that buries man — and it’s just the beginning

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has logged 80 slides since Thursday, when the last winter storm began, including in popular backcountry recreation areas

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A rare in-bounds slide at Steamboat ski area on Sunday caught several skiers by surprise, completely burying a 21-year-snowboarder and partially burying another. The group was in an open area when the avalanche released in closed terrain above them, sweeping nearby skiers off their feet. 

Patrollers were on scene and digging the man from the snow within seven minutes of receiving the call from a witness who described the avalanche between the expert Chutes 1 and 2 and the intermediate Big Meadow run near the top of the ski area. His friends used poles to probe and located the man’s snowboard.

They had partially exposed the bottom of his board when patrollers arrived and started digging. He was free from the snow within nine minutes of the call. Patrollers began resuscitation efforts, and the man was quickly revived and talking as they loaded him into a sled for transport. The patrollers canceled their call for an emergency helicopter.

“He just kept thanking us,” said Dave Hunter, Steamboat’s head of operations, who met the patrollers as they hauled the victim down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. The man was released from Yampa Valley Medical Center on Sunday night, Hunter said. 

With the first big storm of the ski season pounding the high country over the weekend, the rotten layer of snow from October proved it will be a danger for the rest of the season. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center recorded almost 80 avalanches across the state since last Thursday when the storm arrived. 

But avalanches within ski area boundaries are very rare. When they do happen, they tend to involve skiers who triggered the slide as they were skiing in steeper terrain. It’s been almost seven years since inbounds avalanches killed a 13-year-old skier at Vail and a 28-year-old at Winter Park. In January, two skiers died after being caught in an avalanche on Taos’ Kachina Peak

The avalanche at Steamboat on Sunday triggered above the group as they traversed into mellow terrain. They had not crossed any closure ropes and were above the open Big Meadow ski run. They had traversed above the Big Meadow run to build a jump and hang out for the rest of the day, Hunter said. 

Ski patrollers had performed mitigation work in the chutes above Big Meadow on Saturday “and they did see some results,” Hunter said. 

“This isn’t the type of thing Steamboat is known for, but that doesn’t mean we don’t train for it and make sure our teams are prepared to deal with that kind of situation,” Hunter said. “To be on scene that fast with that result is remarkable.”

The weekend storms that pounded Colorado’s high country with as much as three-and-a-half feet of snow bolstered snowpacks to well above average across the state while spiking avalanche danger. 

MORE: A Colorado avalanche instructor’s survey of backcountry skiers’ preparedness had “shocking” results

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center late last week issued avalanche warnings for central Colorado, raising the weekend’s avalanche danger level to “high,” or 4 out of 5, which means large and dangerous natural avalanches are likely and human-triggered avalanches are very likely.

The agency on Sunday fielded reports of a skier-triggered avalanche sweeping a person through cliffs on the west side of Berthoud Pass, snowmobilers triggering an avalanche below Jones Pass, large avalanches on Cameron and Rollins passes as well as remotely triggered avalanches around Vail Pass and Craig Peak above Eagle. 

Skier Markian Feduschak reported an avalanche on Craig Peak outside Eagle on Sunday, Dec. 15. (Photo provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.)

“Combine this worrisome sampling with observations of rumbling collapses and deep cracks shooting up 1,000 feet and we have more than enough information to illustrate that many slopes are ripe for human-triggering today,” the agency’s forecast discussion for Monday says. 

An avalanche on Diamond Peak near Cameron Pass on Dec. 8, 2019, killed a 29-year-old skier from Fort Collins. (Provided by Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The heavy snowfall in October, followed by warm temperatures and even rain in November created a rotten layer of snow that will haunt backcountry travelers across the Rocky Mountains for the entire season. A 29-year-old Fort Collins woman was killed in a slide on Dec. 8 on Diamond Peak near Cameron Pass. A 45-year-old man was buried and killed in an avalanche Sunday outside the boundary of the Park City ski area.

Steamboat ski area counted 63 inches of snow in October, followed by the balmy November. In the past week the ski area harvested 36 inches of snow and measured winds on Friday between 50 mph and 60 mph.

“We had significant snow with a lot of wind-loading,” Hunter said. 

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