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Seeking Higher Ground: Get swept away by beauty, not an avalanche

Locations: Opinion Published

Several of my friends have described me as “fearless,” but it’s not true. Since adolescence, avalanches have left me frozen in fear.

Like so many mountain folk, I knew someone killed by one.

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I remember the anxious buzz that rose in the ski patrol hut when Lloyd Gentry didn’t return after the 3:30 sweep. Lloyd’s son Lee went to the same Denver junior high I did, and we usually hung out together until our dads, both ski patrolmen, came down after clearing the slopes at day’s end.

When Lloyd finally did come down, he lay pale and lifeless in a toboggan. He had been buried in a freak avalanche on shallow slope — one that none of the patrollers thought dangerous. No one expected a slide on an in-bounds run that had been repeatedly skied on that warm, slushy spring day.

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As Brian Lazar, Deputy Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), told the Sopris Sun a couple of weeks ago, “terrain familiarity” is a common assumption that leads experienced skiers into danger. After returning to the same spot year repeatedly without incident, they come to regard an area as perpetually safe.

Familiarity may have played a role in the recent death of ACES Education Director Arin Trook, who had worked with Outward Bound and the National Park Service. Trook was cautious and certainly knew about avalanches, but he was nonetheless overwhelmed by one near the Markley Hut.

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Three-time Olympian team member Buddy Werner, who was raised in Steamboat Springs, also knew about avalanches. Before he died in Switzerland, he outraced one slide but wasn’t fast enough to beat the second — the avalanche that killed him.

When I worked (briefly) as a ski instructor at A-Basin, I was taught what to do if you’re caught in an avalanche: throw away your skis and poles and try to swim upward as the river of snow engulfs you. When it stops churning, clear an air hole around your head. Spit and watch which way your saliva falls. (Reportedly, an avalanche can disorient you so thoroughly that you truly don’t know which way is up!) Then, if you’re not hopelessly pinned, dig your way up and out.

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At A-Basin, I was also taught how to help recover a buried victim. That was the most exhausting on-the-job training I ever experienced! We had to sidestep up on skis and then drive 10-foot poles down into the snow, feeling for resistance. Because the snow was hard, because we didn’t have trained dogs, and because an avalanche tongue contains trees and rocks as well as bodies, we had to jam the wooden poles down hard enough to shatter them. We also had to dig a lot of false holes.

As I began this column, CDOT crews had been working (with plows, thankfully!) to free several cars buried along Highway 91 to Leadville. Castle Creek Road and parts of I-70 were closed due to natural slides, an avalanche-severed gas pipeline and slide mitigation work. A-Basin had just reopened; it had to close for two days due to avalanche danger.

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CAIC has set the danger level at “extreme” for the entire central Rockies, and I have been worrying about the Sopris Sun’s new graphic designer, Ylice Golden.

Ylice has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley before and is relocating back here. She has had to commute over Vail and under Loveland Pass for the past couple of weeks, and she’s had a couple of white-knuckle drives. She assures me that, excited as she is about her new job and returning home, she will definitely stay off I-70 when CDOT tells her to.

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That’s a relief. I don’t think The Sun has any avalanche beacons to issue to employees.

Still, nearly everyone I know around here gets outside on downhill or cross-country skis or snowshoes, and this winter is historic. Avalanches have ventured into territory untouched enough to hold 350 year-old trees. A record eight people have been killed, and CAIC reported that 32 were caught in avalanches in January 2019. That’s nearly three times as many as previous Januaries.

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I’m sure we’re nowhere near the angle of repose.

It’s still snowing and stunningly beautiful outside, so people will be heading out to get swept away by our beautiful scenery and epic snow conditions. If you’re going, please do three things: 1) Check CAIC’s online avalanche forecast. 2) Travel with a friend and share your plans with folks back home. 3) Carry an avalanche beacon, a probe and shovel – and know how to use them.

And remember: when it comes to avalanches, discretion really is the better part of valor.

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