Colorado’s avalanche safety experts say the state’s first snow slide death of the season was a prime example of how often backcountry users are killed when danger levels are forecast to be at their lowest levels.
Nearly 40% of fatal avalanches in Colorado occur during moderately dangerous conditions, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
There are five levels of danger that CAIC uses to forecast avalanche danger: low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme.
“When (danger is) low there may be places out there where you can trigger an avalanche that kills you, but they are relatively hard to find,” said Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC.
High-danger days typically are easier to identify, he said, and people are “very clued into the danger.
“In those middle categories, that’s when you can have the potential to trigger a deadly avalanche and have blue skies or not see much activity,” Greene said.
Michelle Lindsay, a 29-year-old from Fort Collins, was killed while she was backcountry skiing on Cameron Pass west of Fort Collins on Dec. 8. Both she and her partner that day had researched the conditions and danger on the CAIC website before heading out.
Even though they planned to “take it easy” — it was their first backcountry trip of the season — they triggered an avalanche on wind-loaded terrain. CAIC forecasters that day had warned backcountry users to be wary of that kind of terrain.
The agency’s final report on the slide noted that the pair “felt that they had enough backcountry skills to travel at that danger (level) in an area they had been over a dozen times prior.” Their initial plan was to stay below treeline, where avalanche danger that day was lower, but because they felt good they decided to go higher into an area where the danger was listed as moderate.
Greene said what happened to Lindsay and her partner is something avalanche experts have seen before. “They tend to think ‘oh, it’s moderate, I’ve been out on other moderate days and so today is like those days,’” he said.
Before the fatal avalanche, Lindsay and her partner dug a snow pit to get a sense of the snowpack quality and account for any dangerous conditions. They assumed that pack wasn’t very deep because the pit was only about 16 inches deep before hitting ground and thus the “depth would keep any potential avalanches small.”
When the slide happened, Lindsay was skiing ahead of her partner. The partner “noted that the avalanche did not look very deep, maybe only up to the top of her boots” but visibility was poor and she soon disappeared from sight.
Her partner skied down the avalanche path and expected to see Lindsay standing up in shallow debris at the bottom. But when he didn’t find her after traveling down the avalanche path, he began searching the area with his avalanche transponder.
Eventually, two more people skiing nearby who saw the slide joined the search.
The group found Lindsay, who was upright but fully buried with her head under about 2 feet of snow. They were able to dig her out, but it took more than 15 minutes — the general survival limit for someone buried in an avalanche.
The CAIC says that although the snowpack was thin where Lindsay and her partner began their descent, there were wind-loaded sections of mountain below them. Also, the area where she came to rest was in a gully, which provided a “bench” for the snow to accumulate feet deep, enough to bury her.
In all, the avalanche was about 300-feet wide and ran about 420 vertical feet.
Six people on average are killed in Colorado avalanches each year. Last year, eight people were killed.
So far this season, eight people have been caught in backcountry avalanches and three of them buried, including Lindsay. Additionally, skiers and snowboarders have been caught by in-bounds slides at Copper Mountain and Steamboat ski areas.