Colorado’s October Season of Avalanches

Post by blogger | November 2, 2009      

We get some snow in October, and people go crazy out there! We had an exceptional number of incidents and close calls this past month. The following synopsis is from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) website. Check there for more details. You can bet there was more going on out there than what was reported.

In October, 7 avalanches caught 9 people in Colorado (this is the count of reported avalanches by CAIC, and several more actually occurred that we know of). Of those 9 people, 3 were partially buried with their faces exposed, and 2 fully buried or their faces were covered. If you read the details (see link above), you’ll notice the usual litany of mistakes. More than one person exposed to hazard at one time seemed to be the most common, and continues to be a disturbing trend. But the attitude of simply going for it no matter what seems to be a thread as well. And of course, some of these folks probably did all the right stuff and got caught anyway.

October 5, 2009. Mount Meeker, Rocky Mountain National Park
The first reported avalanche incident occurred on October 5th on Mt Meeker in Rocky Mountain National Park. A small slab broke loose about 6 inches deep and 40 feet across and took two climbers on a short ride.

October 11, 2009. Grizzly Peak, Independence Pass
A narrow escape occurred on October 11th on Grizzly Peak south of Independence Pass. Three skiers remotely triggered an avalanche in a steep, northerly facing couloir. The avalanche ran from near the summit to the lake, about 1200 vertical feet. This one could easily have been multiple fatalities.

October 17, 2009. Tyndall Glacier, Rocky Mountain National Park
A skier triggered a two foot deep, 200 foot wide avalanche that ran over 200 vertical feet. The skier took a ride and was not buried.

October 23, 2009. Jones Pass
A skier triggered an avalanche and was caught mid-slab. The crown was about 80 feet above him, 2 feet deep, and 50 feet wide. The skier was taken for a ride, avoided rocks and cliffs, and ended up with only his legs buried.

October 25, 2009. Flattop Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park
This slide was skier triggered on Flattop Mountain on a run known locally as the Hourglass. The second skier down the couloir triggered the slide. Initially the crown was 4 inches deep but stepped down another foot.

October 25, 2009. Loveland Pass
A skier triggered a soft slab on a hard ice crust or possible summer snow field on an east aspect near 12,000 feet on Loveland Pass. There was very little debris, not enough to be buried by the slide after the skier rode and tumbled about 150 vertical feet.

October 25, 2009. Apache Peak, Indian Peaks
Two skiers ascended into a narrow, 40 to 45 degree couloir. They triggered the avalanche at that point. The avalanche carried them about 1000 vertical feet. One skier was completely buried, the second buried with just a hand free The second skier was able to clear the snow from his face and dig himself out. Battered and exhausted, he began a beacon search once free. He quickly located his partner and cleared the snow from his face. Both were hurt but returned to the trailhead on their own.

October 31, 2009. Bartlett Mountain, Fremont Pass
A group of three dropped into a steep northeast to east facing couloir. The first skier was 2 to 3 turns down when the slope cut loose. The skier was buried to his neck and injured. The other two were able to excavate their friend and call out on a cell phone. Rescue was successful.


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38 Responses to “Colorado’s October Season of Avalanches”

  1. nick November 2nd, 2009 9:33 am

    That Grizzly Couloir slide is incredible!

    And the Apache slide is a scary reminder. I’m guessing they were in the Queen’s Way Couloir- I’ve had some great October days in it, but this does not seem to be one of those Octobers! Lucky for them it has a nice runout onto a snowfield and not rocks.

  2. Tyler November 2nd, 2009 9:38 am

    We noticed two very suspect layers skiing Montezuma Saturday. Definitely not the season to let your guard down.

  3. Austin P November 2nd, 2009 10:15 am

    A north facing couloir on Missouri Mountain slid on 10/27/09 took some guy for a little ride but he was uninjured….

  4. Mark W November 2nd, 2009 10:51 am

    I ski all over Rocky Mtn Park and am sobered to hear of slides there, yet realistic as to their probability. We all need to temper early-season excitement.

  5. Cory November 2nd, 2009 11:24 am

    11/1/09 Monarch Snowcat skiing area slide. 2′ crown. 100′ wide. Natural release. 35 degree slope. Numerous anchors (trees, rocks). Slid to bed surface.

  6. Cory November 2nd, 2009 11:26 am

    oh yeah…north facing.

  7. Ric November 2nd, 2009 12:13 pm

    Yesterday, the snow blocks I was cutting to build my fort were fracturing into two thinner snowblocks.

  8. Joe November 2nd, 2009 12:28 pm

    I found 10 feet of snow (7 of which are new wind load) at 12,300′ just east of the divide near Berthoud Pass Saturday. Multiple weak layers within old and new. With that much mass we are going to have very different human triggered outcomes in November.

  9. John Dough November 2nd, 2009 1:00 pm

    People are getting more and more daring in the early season. Years ago we were happy to get a few car laps off loveland in, now people are heading to bigger mountain couloirs and such. Blowing their load a little early. Just because there’s not a full season’s worth of snow on the runs doesn’t mean it ain’t enough to hurt/kill you.

    The snowpack sucks right now and it ain’t gonna get better with age like a fine wine, more like a jack-o-lantern left out after halloween, (ROTTEN) DOH! That reminds me…. :sick:

  10. Caleb November 2nd, 2009 1:23 pm

    I think a big contributing factor this year has been so much early season snow. This is an anomaly for sure. I think a lot of people didn’t make the connection that this wasn’t a “normal” CO October. I also think that all of the publicity about these incidents is a good thing, I would speculate that is has prevented more accidents.

  11. Chase Harrison November 2nd, 2009 2:47 pm

    People just need to CHILL OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    You have the next 8 months to make turns.
    I’m still riding my bike and hiking in Canyonlands.
    What’s the rush.

  12. gonzoskijohnny November 2nd, 2009 2:52 pm

    Tue- thursday big upslope storm in front range had lots of snow, ENE winds, denuded soft snow from lots of E- facing old firm snowbanks above treeline.
    Friday had BIG W winds, re-drfited lots of snow on east side, cold temps, minimal bonding.:sad:
    Sat at Jones pass sat I saw numerous “big line” skiiers skiing lines they didn’t have a clue about, shooting fractures, settlements, natural activity be dammed. I got some generous shooting fractures with settlement on a 24 -30 degree slope- turned around and went home, restructuring my bases on barely covered rocks on the way. Shocked to have only seen 1 remotely triggered slide during the AM. Shocked that other lines didn’t bring down half their groups.:shocked:
    Also shocked that so many skiers were skiing big lines fast on baseless 18″ soft over rocks in thier mega sized big mtn rigs… maybe they have been watching a bit too much ski porn this fall.
    Seemed that snowshoers were actually doing more brainwork than the skiers and staying away from risky areas, Likely the 20″ shoes continusly falling through the crust of the windslab help drive home the pint..
    no brain no pain!
    darwinian evolution?:w00t:

  13. Frank Konsella November 2nd, 2009 5:55 pm

    I think that there is an overabundance of criticism in the comments here. Many seasons have a window of opportunity in the early season to ski a big line or two before the infamous CO depth hoar develops. Clearly this hasn’t been the case this season up in the front range, but the base here in Crested Butte was off to a decent start and a number of proud lines went down without incident. Maybe it was all luck, or maybe the window had been left open, if just for awhile. I’m much more concerned with what this dry spell is doing to the snow now, it might get a lot uglier if it rots away…

    PS- I was curious about Caleb’s thoughts on snowpack this season. As I suspected, this season lags behind ’06 (5.5pwc vs. 7) in the CB area, as well as ’96, an October I remember particularly well. (Although it is quite a bit above average.)

  14. Tom Gos November 2nd, 2009 5:56 pm

    The Vail Daily is running a story on their website this afternoon that reports that the skier caught Saturday in the Bartlett slide was a 17 year old kid who was skiing with two Vail ski patrollers. I’m not sure what to think about this – either the conditions must have appeared very safe if a couple of patrollers decided to ski it, or some ski patrollers don’t really have the avalanche safety knowledge we might expect. The story also states that rescuers responding over the ground were hampered by knee deep snow that they penetrated to the ground through continuously. It sure seems that this kind of warning sign would have been obvious to a couple of pro trollers. It’s too bad that CAIC dosen’t seem to have the staff available to do accident investigations on these early season slides and then publish detailed reports.

  15. Halsted November 2nd, 2009 6:19 pm

    CAIC has the staff. But, not the $$$ :shocked:

  16. Lou November 2nd, 2009 7:23 pm

    Many ski patrollers are no doubt experts at dealing with backcountry terrain without explosives or skier compaction. I know quite a few who fit that category. Others are not. I have no idea about the patrollers involved in above incident, but just person being a ski patrollman doesn’t automatically make them a backcountry skiing avalanche expert.

    More, as we all know but sometimes deny, what level of risk we choose to accept is as big a part of this as anything else. That’s one reason experts get hurt and killed by avalanches quite frequently.

  17. Ric November 2nd, 2009 8:11 pm

    Word Lou. There are many faces to Ski Patrolling, and avy safety is in the skill set of the avid and few. My older brother is celebrating his 25th year as a volunteer patroller, and he has virtually no avy experience (patrolling in Northeast PA might have something to do with that).
    Halsted, I hope the event on the 14th changes that!

  18. Halsted November 2nd, 2009 9:51 pm

    I take back my posting. The Ethan of the CAIC did go up and check-out the accident site today.

  19. KR November 2nd, 2009 10:16 pm

    Yeah, this is silly. Who needs a dose of Colorado windjack this early?

    Lou – I will be climbing cracks and towers in Utah until you post and tell me it’s safe to come back!

  20. Randonnee November 3rd, 2009 12:07 am

    Lou speaks wisely, of course- “just person being a ski patrollman doesn’t automatically make them a backcountry skiing avalanche expert.” Same for Guides in my view- I read of stuff that Guides get involved in sometimes and just shake my head. My transition from bomb-hucker (200-300 bombs hucked per year myself where I worked) to exposing myself much at all in the backcountry took years. Now I try to rethink my views of the backcountry areas that I ski regularly and try to get back the former feelings of being scared, and seriously question my exposure, every time! In area or in backcountry, one needs to know the entire snowpack history and characteristics before starting to consider potential hazard.

    It would seem especially scary in my view there in the cold CO climate with lingering and insidious hazard. Here in PNW we have the huge advantage of snowpack-soaking-rains followed by refreeze as the great equalizer, a mega-crust clean-slate from which to start over, as long as it remains a mega-crust…

    Last year I read online an emotional plea about avoiding historic avy hazard potential, written by Guides who had exposed themselves (duh) to what was well-known as historically significant potential! Just believe it, it can avalanche, it can kill you. The sad reality is that many who go on avalanche terrain and survive it do so by luck and probability but erroneously believe that they have some skill in avoiding avalanche entrainment….I try to stay away from ignorance and luck and instead stay studious, cautious, and scared.

  21. Hardy Zone November 3rd, 2009 2:59 am

    Hi, I’m Ed Hardy and I’m in the zone! Just checking to see if Lou is paying attention. I guess he is.

  22. Lou November 3rd, 2009 6:33 am

    Good discussion, you guys are the best!

  23. SB November 3rd, 2009 9:43 am

    As stated above, don’t assume your average ski patroller has superior avvy knowledge. Some do, but it is not required. The NSP requirements for a basic patroller are a Level 1 Avvy class. They also require 110+ hours of emergency care training (OEC class) and advanced CPR. That is their primary focus. The patrollers who do control work are somewhat specialized,.

  24. SB November 3rd, 2009 9:51 am


    “The sad reality is that many who go on avalanche terrain and survive it do so by luck and probability but erroneously believe that they have some skill in avoiding avalanche entrainment”

    I’d say that all people who survive avalanche terrain do so by probability. After all, there is no way to be 100% certain on any slope with avalanche potential. One could completely avoid avalanche slopes, but then one would never ski anything over 25 degrees either.

  25. Tim M. November 3rd, 2009 10:40 am
  26. Ethelbert November 3rd, 2009 11:08 am

    I have a great solution to the avalanche prone problems of Colorado; Move to Whitefish Montana! Where the locals will gladly take you along on a tour, showing you their most favorite and top secret powder stashes. Secondly we have a top notch avalanche center and an outstanding avalanche forecasting team from the USFS. Couple that with the somewhat PNW maritime snow pack (unlike the closely associated rockies) and you have a great playground right out your front door.

    Dave D. could even come along for a blog report on the great skiing and the friendly locals.

  27. Edge November 3rd, 2009 12:02 pm

    I would like to add a corollary to the theory above about patrollers’ avi experience: Don’t assume they’re experts with their beacons either. We’ve seen many a professional patroller who chokes when it’s time to do a beacon search. Just because they’re a pro (or NSP) patroller, don’t assume they’re an authority on transceivers (overly contributing to blogs is a dead giveaway). There are many recreational skiers out there that are infinitely better with their beacons than pros.

    However, when it comes to Vail, they take beacons and avalanche safety very seriously despite having very little in-bounds avalanche terrain. They are on constant alert for incidents at East Vail, so must be prepared for the worst. They have a Beacon Training Park at the top of Chair 5 (and 11) and they get annual training from us at BCA. I can’t say enough about their dedication to avalanche rescue training up there. I can’t speak for the Vail patrollers up at Bartlett Mountain, but generally speaking Vail’s program is tight.

  28. Randonnee November 3rd, 2009 11:04 pm

    Hi SB,

    Good comment, but I think it degrades what is possible. one may get it right with understanding and self conteol.

    My view is that characterizing avalanche potential and understanding of avalanching as mysterious or complicated is the unfortunate problem. It is relatively simple to understand after developing a skill set and significant days of observation and experience. The part that I think some have trouble with is placing themselves far enough within the safe zone, the tendency to push it. The lack of self-control is one of the main commonalities in avalanche accidents, including my own. There are days when I ski serious avy terrain in deep new snow, with near 100% certainty, or I would not do it! I believe that that skill set and understanding is held by experienced practitioners and is attainable. Again, self-control is the biggest problem in accidents, including those involving very experienced and skilled practitioners of avalanche evaluation.

    I believe that with the proper knowledge, study, and monitoring one may be correct in the 99th percentile. My belief comes from thousands of days exposing myself to avalanche terrain and potential after making decisions.

  29. Lou November 4th, 2009 7:59 am

    I’d agree with Randonnee. The key is operating well within the limits of what you know. Too many people “know” but go for it anyway.

  30. Matt Kinney November 4th, 2009 9:56 am

    Hey lou where’s the countdown clock for Denali? 😎

    Some mindless avy babble. from da north land,

    I don’t see avalanche as “mysterious” no more so than skiing out of control and breaking a leg or skiing into a tree or off a cliff. Its one part of the sport and you have to be careful out there and do certain things to do it safely. Avalanches happen for a reason and when a human is involved…they caused it. They do just not just “mysteriously” happen. I do find avalanches and their causes exciting and fascinating.

    I think instinct and gut comes into play, where you make decisions without much obvious thought or actions You just move forward through terrain glancing off hazards, poking and probing, making your way up and then down a mountain. I have been fortunate to observe other good skiers over the years who have little route skills experience, a few avy courses and lift time and watch as they react to “situations” , as they being to enter the world of being a BC skier. They do two things: stop and over- analyze or move forward by guessing. This either makes the ski day boring or will get people caught in chaos. In that case I typically take the lead and get on with the tour and end up busting all the trail..

    Experience allows some to process snowpack info much faster . I call this “situational awareness” and it is only attained with many years of experience with real time route finding.

    Route finding skills are best attained traveling in terrain not yet assessed recently, and, avoiding traveling where others have traveled in recent days. If all you do is poach on others skin tracks, you are not gonna learn as much as making youwoudl if you made your own way, There is nothing to learn if someone shows you the problem and then solves it for you. I am constantly throwing my friends in the lead to force them into situations to make the call as to where to go. (and to break trail! :happy: )

    To keep my “situational awareness” skills up, I try to find terrain I have never skied before, go and solve it. I endorse solo travel as the apex route finding skill set. Its like a high level of karma and exciting to get it right. The more I stop and turn around and say no to a terrain issue, the more I have learned. In other word learning to say no is a skill. Sometimes I say yes and get the best ski day on the planet. And yes it can happen even with a ….free heel! : :biggrin:

  31. Lou November 4th, 2009 10:04 am

    Hey Matt, good idea, I’ll stick the countdown clock back up there sooner or later.

  32. SB November 4th, 2009 10:25 am

    Note that nowhere did I say that avalanches are “mysterious”, although none of the techniques for gauging risk potential give the skier all of the information needed to make the correct decision all of the time.

    What I was trying to point out that the whole process of backcountry skiing is managing probabilities (risk), and thus there is an element of chance involved in the way most ski. Be truthful with yourself that you are taking a risk (no matter how small). You may have superior route slection and snowpack analysis skills, but unless you completely avoid potential avalanche terrain (who does that?), you are exposing yourself to some risk (that is not a bad thing). Hopefully, you have chosen an amount of risk that you are aware of and are comfortable with.

    And hopefully the level of risk you have exposed yourself to is actually close to the level of risk you think it was.

  33. Randonnee November 4th, 2009 11:55 am

    Good points, SB. The most dangerous thing that I do is ride a bicycle, more dangerous than my 40 to 50 backcountry powder days on avy terrain, ski cutting slabs intentionally, etc. Driving to the trailhead to start ski touring is more dangerous than my exposure to avalanching.

    Exposing oneself to avalanche hazard is nearly completely controllable risk. One must use their hazard evaluation skills but more importantly discipline oneself to stay conservative, stay safe within the highest probabilities. My point is that you must get it right (your avy hazard assessment) but importantly it is very feasible to make good decisions and stay safe if one uses self-control and considers the consequences.

    As far as getting it right, I have in my experience such a high percentage of calling it correctly that I cringe when I think that sometime I WILL get it wrong. That is where the consideration of consequences is vitally important. Riding a small avalanche usually has a different consequence than taking a ride in a slab from a big bowl. A small avy path with a relatively hazard-free runout is a different thing from getting shoved over a rock bluff by a small slide or being wrapped on a tree by an avalanche. My habits from years of control work carry over to the backcountry- ski from safety to safety, consider the potential and the consequences, expect the worse and fear the consequences.

  34. Randonnee November 4th, 2009 12:14 pm

    Interesting, me too, Matt- “I endorse solo travel as the apex route finding skill set.” I think that making that decision to enter avy terrain while embracing the concept that a wrong decision WILL BE fatal, that is the true commitment. My theory is that even if one has a crew along of the best rescuers who can shovel like a backhoe, the decision should be in the same context- “if I get this wrong, I die!”

    Against all mainstream common sense, I sometimes solo ski quite a bit on avy paths in deep powder after careful evaluation and testing. I solo ski cut quite a few Size 2 slabs, nothing larger in the backcountry. I ski cut nothing big because I stay completely away from that potential when alone. I have hard fast rules that keep me on avy-free terrain when there is a certain threshold of say 7 inches overnight on a potential weak bond or significant winds, warmups, etc.

    Again, I think that the decision should be the same alone or with others- get it wrong, you die…

  35. Le Pistoir November 5th, 2009 10:19 am

    Monday Morning Quarterbacking is the main fear of those who do not report their incidents. It is important that anyone who is brave enough to come forward with their incident report and admit that they messed up should be thanked and praised and reminded how lucky they are. What not to do? Don’t second guess the decisions made that day because they can’t be done over again. All you can do is learn from those mistakes (be thankful you have the opportunity to learn from them) and get back out there a little wiser.
    Right now, there’s an obvious strong-over-weak configuration in CO so it is puzzling that people still go for it, especially with stiff slabs, but it’s still up to them.

  36. mitchellskis November 6th, 2009 10:27 am

    Scary times in Colorado BC. I must say that I think the rash of incidents is in part the result of the confluence of an above average snowpack exhibiting several different weak layers/upside down pack with the wave of newer, more aggressive backcountry skiers.

    When I cut my teeth b/c skiing in CO the prevailing wisdom was to stay away from most more avy prone lines until later in the season. Now it seems that people are swarming all over every steep classic line as soon as enough snowfall comes to mostly keep one off of the rocks. The internet forums have helped feed this phenomenon with the instant publication of powder shots publicizing the glory of fall powder turns. You should see Jones Pass on an October weekend with dozens of skiers or Berthoud Pass after the first big snowfall.

    The result it seems to me is that the enthusiasm levels get even more amped up and people are out the door looking to hit a big line. Combine with the fact that in the past few years it seems that the snowpack has been pretty forgiving in the early season and the result is, I think, that many of these backcountry skiers have learned to err on the side of aggressiveness rather than on the side of caution.

    Back to my mellow below treeline drifts and low angle ridge shots for now.

  37. Doug G. November 6th, 2009 2:01 pm

    I think one of the most dangerous things in the backcounty is people. In highly used areas the presence/evidence of people being there may add a false sense of security to the area-which lures more people to that area. Not only does it do this, but it also can create immediate danger while on a slope. I prefer to stay far away from high use areas because I don’t know/trust that other skiers around me and my group have the judgement and experience to know basic, common sense safety behavior. Another thing that I perceive as being a cause of more people being involved in slides is the overall lack of respect and a change of mentality in the mountains. Those who’s background is one of “bitch slapping” the mountain and cranking their bindings to max so when they back-slap a landing they don’t come out of their skis are in my opinion, dangerous fools. What happens to these people when they get injured an hour or more away from their car? They compromise the safety of others for something stupid that they did. In my opinion, this mentality is due-at least in part, to the availability and ease of use of the new A.T. gear. Ever increasing population growth of urban areas near the mountains doesn’t help either. The yahoos who are used to skiing a manicured, controlled,”safe” ski area are now going into backcountry areas to find freshies and not putting in the milage to learn about route finding, snow analysis, first aid, line selection…
    In regards to ski patrollers being experienced with backcountry travel and know-how, anyone who assumes that the two go hand in hand is making some very dangerous assumptions. As mentioned earlier, the handful of trollers out there who consistently ski backcountry zones and know the history of the snow pack in those areas are few and far between. Making assumptions of any kind in avalanche terrain can be a pretty risky thing to do.

  38. Lou November 6th, 2009 2:11 pm

    Good points there Doug!

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