Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Yesterday. An inbounds avalanche at Snowbird resort killed a woman, and a slackcountry avalanche on Aspen Mountain killed a man. Vail even had an inbounds avalanche that resulted in a close call.
The Snowbird avalanche occurred on hike-to terrain on the side of the resort, known as High Baldy. Heather Gross from Salt Lake City was found by avalanche probe at 1:18 p.m. and was air transported to the hospital in critical condition. Though she was amazingly found alive after an hour long burial, she subsequently died. The avalanche was reported just after noon by a witness using a cell phone. More here.
In Aspen, will known local skier and former Aspen Mountain ski patrolman Cory Brettmann was found in a slackcountry area on the easterly side of Aspen Mountain known as “Power Line.” Authorities received a call of an overdue skier at about 7:00 p.m. and the Aspen Skiing Co. mobilized 22 people to search for Brettmann. He was found dead at around 8:30 p.m.
I was going to blog today about how my wife and I spent the weekend up-skiing and riding lifts at little ‘ol Buttermilk ski area — and ended up getting a ton of excellent early season freshies. I was going to say we were there because it was obvious the backcountry around here was incredibly avy prone due to recent storms that piled up to two feet deep. But I’m not feeling like a pound-my-chest trip report at the moment.
Oh no, far from it. How about avy 101 instead?
When Colorado (or for that matter, Utah) goes through an early winter with minimal snow, the result is inevitable. Cold nights cause the snowpack to metamorphose. Instead of a foundation that holds subsequent storms like cinder blocks bedded in mortar, the older snow becomes a layer of ball-bearing like crystals that hold said cinder blocks as tenuously as if they’d been dropped on sand.
Such snowpacks do inevitably stabilize. Once the pack thickens, it either crushes down the bad layer and bonds it, or avalanches clean out the gook and a new/better pack develops. Sometimes, however, if we don’t get lots of snow the bad layer grows again and avalanches keep repeating.
This early in the season we don’t know which scenario will develop. We pray that we’ll continue to get big and frequent storms that’ll fix things. But even if the storms roll in it will be weeks before we can backcountry ski without the risk of heinous and terrifying “delayed action slabs,” avalanches that may happen well after storms, and are frequently triggered from some distance away by a skier causing a collapse in the snowpack. These massive settlements (known as “woomphs” because of their distinctive sound) may project hundreds of yards or more and trigger avalanches some distance from the skier — above the skier — or when the skier is a number of turns into their run.
Trying to play the avalanche game in this environment is like walking around with a lit cigar in a gasoline refinery.
Back to Black Sunday. Heather Gross died inbounds, depending on technology and human intervention to stabilize avalanche slopes she chose to ski. That didn’t work and she died. I’ve been recommending for a while now that folks skiing inbounds “adventure” or “hike to” terrain should always wear a transmitting avalanche beacon, and sometimes even ski with a shovel pack and a buddy. As for Cory, we don’t know the details at this time but his tragic accident appears to be the classic scenario of someone all too familiar with their backyard, and heading there by themselves not realizing just how tenuous that decision may sometimes be. We’ll update this post when details become available.
We offer condolences to family and friends of Heather and Cory, and publish the above opinion and perhaps life saving commentary as a small part of their legacy.
Update: One of Cory’s friends emailed me with the short bio I excerpt below. I’d known Brettmann was experienced, but the depth of his background is stunning — and sobering when one considers what happened yesterday.
“Lou, Cory was really focused on raising his children, and as a result had built a wood shop in his backyard so he could be close to them. He had been a patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Area from about 1980 until 1990 (estimates) and later a patroller at the Aspen Ski Area from 1990 to around 2005. He spent a lot of time modifying his home in Old Snowmass, skiing recreationally, mountain bike riding, collecting and drinking wines, and had become a bit of an armchair mountaineer as well. He summited Mt. McKinley, Mt. Foraker, and Mt. Hunter in the Alaska Range…”