Colorado Avalanche Death and the Quest for Powder

Post by blogger | December 22, 2006      

Backcountry skiing Colorado powder.
We met up with legendary Aspen backcountry skier Rick Wilder yesterday, skiing our local version of the Wasatch. Much better conditions here than farther to the east, where a man died in an avalanche.

Had a tragic avalanche death yesterday at Snowmass Resort, in Colorado near here. Nicholas Blake jumped off a cliff and triggered a slide in what is said to be a closed area. It appears the Blake had friends with him, but they were not prepared for companion rescue.

It’s interesting how variable the central Colorado snowpack presently is. Yesterday we were backcountry skiing an area about 20 miles west of Snowmass, and we found the snowpack to be tight and stable, with a layer of powder on top that was nicely glued to the substrate and had not formed any slab. That’s not saying there could have been some tricky snow where we were, so we still stayed out of avalanche path guts, dug our pits, skied one-at-a-time and kept an eye on each other. In Colorado, the possibility of a deep slab “delayed action” avalanche is always there, always lurking…

Indeed, when things look good I actually regard that as a red flag, as that’s when we tend to drop our guard and may quickly up the anti in terms of risk. In the backcountry you can move in minutes or seconds from a totally safe ski slope to a high hazard area. Let down your guard, and suddenly you’re out in the middle of some huge avalanche path where you really shouldn’t be. Or jumping off a cliff on to an avalanche slope, thus becoming an excellent human trigger… As for the man who died at Snowmass, the lessons he leaves with us are obvious — our condolences to his friends and family.


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5 Responses to “Colorado Avalanche Death and the Quest for Powder”

  1. Lou December 22nd, 2006 8:39 pm

    Update from Lou: I spoke on the phone today with a guy who was skiing the same area as Blake, just before the fatal slide. My source said the area was not clearly marked as to being open or closed and it’s possible Blake thought he was in an open area. If so, double tragic. My source said the ski patrol at Snowmass in most cases does an exceptional job of marking boundaries, but this area could have been better marked.

    That said, if I was skiing terrain like that where Blake died, inbounds or not, I’d want to be with people who carried beacons and shovels and knew how to use them (and have such gear myself). Depending on the ski patrol to be 100% inerrant is ridiculous.

  2. Milt December 23rd, 2006 5:13 pm

    Lou: two questions:
    1. Could you explain more your argument for carrying avi gear inbounds in a resort?

    2. My reading of the news stories is regardless of whether Blake jumped from a closed area, the actual avalanche occurred in a open area. Is that your understanding?

  3. Lou December 23rd, 2006 5:19 pm

    Hi Milt:

    1. There is no argument, lots of people do it when they intend to adventure ski at a resort. Ski patrol makes mistakes or lacks manpower, lots of quite radical terrain is now open at North American resorts and around the world, boundaries are sometimes vague, etc.

    2. I believe he triggered it in a closed area and it ran into an open area. That scenario is possible at many resorts, and the patrol has to consider if the danger of a “natural” release is high enough to justify closing areas where such an avalanche could run.

  4. Jo December 24th, 2006 10:38 pm

    Regardless of where you are you must always consider the objective hazards of skiing. Always be responsible for yourself and others. Ski resorts control what they can but mother nature is all powerful.

  5. Dan January 23rd, 2007 3:00 pm

    Concerning the arguments in favor of carrying Avy gear inbounds in a resort: I was told by the patrol at my home mountain, Crystal Mountain WA, that in the event of a slide inbounds patrol would begin a beacon search at once.

    There was a fatality at Crystal several years ago involving an inbounds release on a closed slope. The victim had a beacon. In his car.

    That’s all the argument I need to hear. Me and my son both wear our beacons and carry our gear inbounds as well as out. I can’t think of a good argument against giving one’s self every chance of being rescued, as opposed to recovered.

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