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Colorado plans to ramp up messaging after avalanches kill three experienced skiers in two days

How to reach experienced backcountry travelers is an age-old debate. Veterans can grow complacent, especially in areas where they ski often.

A 6-foot-tall skier stands above a slab avalanche that ran about 100 meters on Jones Pass on Dec, 18, 2020. No one was injured. It was one of 132 avalanches reported between Dec. 18 and 20, 2020, 49 of which were triggered by backcountry skiers. Nine people were caught in slides during the period and three died. (Wil Rickards, Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
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Ethan Greene’s team at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Friday capped a week of warnings detailing an increasingly touchy snowpack with three dire social media blasts pointing to spiking avalanche danger across the state. 

The story of a buried skier rescued by his friend on Berthoud Pass included an urgent plea to ski with a partner. A photo of an east-facing slope scoured by an avalanche on Independence Pass warned that even a modest amount of snow was pushing the snowpack “past the tipping point.” A graph of more than 400 natural and human-triggered avalanches from the previous seven days showed small slides on a wide variety of terrain.

Two days after the trumpeted warnings, three very experienced backcountry skiers were dead in two avalanches. One was skiing alone and two were skiing a high-consequence line. Sunday afternoon Greene sent out an uncommon plea, detailing “unusually dangerous” avalanche conditions and pleading with all backcountry travelers to use “additional caution,” even in terrain where they have safely skied in recent years. 

“We are trying to do more and I think we just need to continue to do that,” Greene said of the unprecedented public push to turn as many eyes as possible toward avalanche forecasts and reports. “We don’t know what the absolute right thing to do is, but what we want to do is make sure we are putting good information out there and hopefully people are interacting with it on a couple of occasions in a couple of different ways.”

MORE: Bodies of two backcountry skiers found in avalanche debris near Silverton

Heading into this backcountry ski season, state officials have joined avalanche educators and search-and-rescue teams in a vocal campaign urging backcountry skiers to plan and be prepared for travel in avalanche terrain. Backcountry retail shops and avalanche gear manufacturers are reporting record sales. Avalanche education classes and clinics are swelling to record numbers. Resorts restricting access to control the spread of COVID-19 are expected to drive more skiers into avalanche terrain. 

Early projections of a grim backcountry season were supported this weekend. The Crested Butte community lost a local legend when former ski patroller Jeff “Schnoid” Schneider was buried in an avalanche in a zone where he skied often. The next day, two very experienced outdoorsmen from Durango were swept to their deaths in a prominent avalanche path above Ophir Pass near Silverton. On Friday, a snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche in Wyoming’s Salt River Range near Afton.

Crested Butte’s beloved Jeff Schneider was killed in an avalanche on the “Friendly Finish” slope of the Anthracites near Irwin on Friday. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

In the last week, Greene’s avalanche forecasters at CAIC have fielded reports of 380 avalanches across the state, 108 of them triggered by people. In the three days since Friday, there were 132 avalanches, 49 triggered by people with nine of them caught in moving snow. 

That’s a very busy weekend for avalanche activity. It might not be as dramatic as the week in March 2019 when historic avalanches changed landscapes, but that was the most avalanches CAIC has recorded in a single week since 2011. 

Last week’s spike in human-caused avalanches surpassed previous records set in January 2015, January 2012 and December 2013. The slides weren’t giants, but they were very easy to trigger, said Greene, noting how an inch of new snow combined with high winds in the Seven Sisters avalanche paths led to a natural slide that covered U.S. 6 on Loveland Pass last week. 

“We are seeing avalanches that are not huge, earth-shattering events but they are dangerous and really easy to trigger,” Greene said. 

The concern heading into this winter has swirled around first-timers. But the first three fatalities of the season involved seasoned backcountry skiers in lines where previous avalanches have claimed lives. Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, a 51-year-old Durango physician, and 55-year-old Albert Perry were found late Saturday in avalanche debris at the base of a zone called Battleship near Silverton, a northwest facing slide path that ranks among the largest on Red Mountain Pass. The two men were well-known backcountry skiers. 

MORE: New Colorado avalanche study reveals troubling trend heading into busy backcountry season

The Battleship path is a notorious avalanche zone. Several skiers have been caught in avalanches there, including two skiers in 2019, one in 2011 and two in 2010. A Crested Butte woman was killed in an avalanche on the “Friendly Finish” slope of the Anthracites near Irwin in the late 1990s, the same slope where skiers found Schnieder, who was skiing alone. 

The deaths of the three experienced skiers comes one month after Greene released an analysis of the previous season’s avalanches showing more skilled travelers getting into trouble in avalanche terrain when the danger is elevated. Last season six people died in avalanches in Colorado. Greene said the research suggested that veterans will drive a busy season for avalanches just as much as the expected wave of newcomers to Colorado’s backcountry.

The challenge is balancing outreach to capture both the swarm of first-time backcountry skiers as well as grizzled vets. 

How to reach experienced travelers is an age-old debate. Veterans can grow complacent, especially in areas where they ski often.

“This is a conversation that could go on and on and I don’t know if there is really a way to resolve the problem,” said Abe Pacharz, the owner and lead guide for Summit County’s Colorado Adventure Guides who has seen “a huge increase” in students signing up for his avalanche courses and online clinics this season. 

Pacharz is not surprised to see statistics showing more experienced skiers triggering avalanches. They tend to go often and lately they are pushing deeper into the backcountry to find powder beyond the now-crowded, easier-to-access zones.  The question of whether training matters more than experience — or vice versa — is one that dates back to the first days of formal avalanche education. 

“I wish I knew the answer,” said Pacharz, talking about the challenge in convincing a backcountry skier with 20 years of experience to seek formal training. “I think there is merit in both sides of the discussion. Just because you take a Level 1 doesn’t mean you are ready to start going after big objectives. You need experience and time and it should be a journey of differing velocities for each person.”

Reaching backcountry skiers at every moment of their journey is a challenge for Greene and other avalanche forecasters. 

And this season, he’s going to get lots of practice with that messaging. 

“You are going to see other things from us in addition to forecasts,” he said, mentioning more news releases, videos and social media campaigns “to amplify the message.” 

The sketchy snowpack isn’t going to change anytime soon. The layer of sugary, faceted crystals near the ground is not going anywhere. New snow piled on top will make that weak layer a factor in avalanches for the rest of the season.

A snow profile dug by a Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster for the Dec. 21 forecast clearly shows the weak, faceted layer beneath a slab layer of new snow. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The last time Colorado snowpack looked like this was December 2011. The snow was slow to arrive that season. When the first big dumps of the winter fell in January, avalanche danger spiked. Four avalanches killed four people in four days in that January 2012 storm cycle, including two skiers inside ski area boundaries. 

MORE: Colorado’s first-ever criminal charges following an avalanche could be slippery slope for backcountry travelers

“It feels like 2011 in terms of the level of weakness in the underlying snowpack and the reactivity we are getting out of it,” Greene said. 

Greene isn’t making any predictions about how this winter might unfold, but he said the likely scenarios he has sketched out “are not super attractive. 

“That doesn’t mean there is not going to be good recreation, but everyone has to realize that  this year is more sensitive than what you are used to,” Greene said. “I’m not trying to be doom-and-gloom. This is about sticking with the fundamentals and not being attached to particular outcomes. 

“The stuff you have been doing for the last five years without incident, that needs to be reconsidered,” he said. “Think differently about that skin track or that snowmobile route. Pair the situation we are seeing this winter with your route choices.”

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