Mountain Town News: Death from above |

Mountain Town News: Death from above

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Exceptional snow year produces deadly slides

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – The Colorado Avalanche Information Center described the snowy torrents thundering over the weekend as historic. There were deaths, there were bizarre circumstances. And at least one snowslide occurred at a scale perhaps not seen since 1910.

“The avalanches are running much larger than they have, in some cases, for maybe 50 to 100 years,” Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster with the center, told the Summit Daily News last Friday, soon after the avalanche cycle began.

First, the bizarre circumstances of the death of a 25-year-old man who was shoveling a low-angle roof with a companion on Saturday at a housing development near Crested Butte. According to a preliminary report by the avalanche information center, no one noticed the roof avalanche for about 10 minutes.

Help was summoned, and their bodies were located by probes. The second snow shoveler, a 37-year-old man, who had not been buried as deeply, was treated for hypothermia. They had been buried for 20 to 30 minutes.

This was in a subdivision about a mile south of the town of Crested Butte. Another roof avalanche buried a 28-year-old man the evening before in Mt. Crested Butte, the town at the base of the ski area. He was treated for low core-body temperature. Yet another roof shoveler had been rescued from a roof avalanche the weekend before.

CBS4 in Denver said the Crested Butte area had received more than 4 feet of wet, heavy snow in the days prior to the weekend avalanches. Several days more of snowfall are predicted for early this week.

Roof avalanches are not completely rare. At least 8 have occurred in this century — including one in Fargo, N.D.

Before the Crested Butte death, had reported 20 fatalities in the United States this winter, all but one since January. Of the victims, 12 were on skis and 8 were on snowmobiles. Colorado led the death toll with 7 deaths. It leads all states in avalanche fatalities, with 257 from 1950 to 2017. Alaska is second with 152 during the same period, followed by Washington, Montana, and Utah.

Not all avalanches in Colorado during the last week resulted in loss of lives. The Aspen Times reported a snowslide in the Conundrum Valley, near the Aspen Highlands ski area, that was a mile wide and tore down the valley, snapping mature trees, for 3,000 vertical feet.

“This is as big of an avalanche as this terrain can produce,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “This is a landscape-changing event.”

In Summit County, Arapahoe Basin was closed for two days as a precautionary measure. Probably a good thing, said the Summit Daily News as notorious avalanche paths called The Professor and The Widowmaker ran, burying the highway to the ski area.

More notable yet was an avalanche in the Tenmile Range above Frisco. There, a slide in 1910 took out a mining camp called Masontown. In local lore, everybody had been off to the bars in Frisco when the slide occurred. In fact, the town had been abandoned. Whatever. It was a big slide, and experts tell the Summit Daily that the slide that occurred last week might have been even bigger.

Finally, U.S. Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton in the San Juan Mountains had been closed for a week as of Monday. Also called the Million Dollar Highway, the route was projected by Colorado highway crews to remain closed “indefinitely.”

The notorious Riverside slide had claimed many lives over the years until a snowshed was erected to funnel snows over the highway. This time it wasn’t enough. There were 20 to 30 feet of snow on the pavement before state crews intentionally triggered more slides, leaving up to 60 feet of snow. The new slide filled in the snowshed, too.


Skier responsibility at stake in slide situation

JACKSON, Wyo. – Jeff Brines owns up to having disrupted the lives of many people who travel between Wyoming and Idaho. He’s sorry.

He was skiing above Teton Pass on the Wyoming-Idaho border. He’s done so 1,000 times, beckoned by the wonderful snow especially in an area call Glory Bowl. It’s located above the highway that connects Jackson with Victor and Driggs, the Idaho towns where many workers in Jackson, as well as the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, work.

Brines and his dog were unhurt when he triggered the avalanche that closed the highway for most of a day. Moreover, he had no immediate knowledge of whether the avalanche might have buried somebody below.

“That was one of the darkest moments of my life,” Brines told the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “That feeling that you might have hurt somebody else is something I hope I never feel again.”

Nobody on the highway was hurt or even hit by the snowy torrents. But there was great inconvenience.

The slide occurred at 7:30 a.m. The highway remained closed until 5 p.m. There’s another way, through a town called Alpine. But it adds more than an hour to the trip.

The News&Guide reports rising tension between users of the backcountry above the pass and Wyoming transportation officials responsible for the safety of travelers.

A local resident, Jay Pistono, who spearheads much of the outreach work with skiers, says he has pushed the idea that those slide-prone areas, as delicious as the skiing can be, should be informally off-limits.

“You just don’t ski those runs,” he said.


Climate shift considered in ski resorts of future

FRISCO, Colo. – Climate change probably does not rank as the top worry for skiers and snowboarders this winter. After all, how long has it been since nearly everybody had snow like this?

But climate change does show up as a consideration frequently in a profile of SE Group, a Colorado-based firm that has been designing trails, lifts, and other components of ski areas since the 1960s.

Chris Cushing, the principal, says that warming temperatures have altered the design of ski areas. Runs have become narrower, because wider ones are more expensive to maintain snow cover, and expansion areas have fewer south-facing, sun-exposed trails.

The story in Architecture + Design, a magazine, also points to Deer Valley as an example of a resort where climate change has altered plans. Various factors—including climate change— resulted in a new base village being located further up the mountain than is currently necessary. But, as Cushing puts it, there may be snow now, but wait a decade.

The story also points out that the greatest shift in ski resort design has been the almost mandatory contemplation of non-winter activities. “Having a business model that operates one season out of four is just not a good model,” says Claire Humber, the director of resort planning and design for SE Group.


What will it take to keep recyclables from landfills?

KETCHUM, Idaho – Oh, what to do with those copies of the Idaho Mountain Express, Skiing, or just about any other paper in Ketchum, Sun Valley, and other communities of Blaine County.

China doesn’t want the bundles of mixed paper that local residents have faithfully carted to recycling centers in Blaine County—and hardly anybody else does either.

The Atlantic explains that the county eventually stopped collecting the mixed papers when the pile had grown to 35 bales. Instead of being recycled, the papers were taken to the landfill.

“For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China – tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products,” The Atlantic explains. “But last year the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper – magazines, office paper, junk mail – and most plastics.”

There are no easy answers. Burning recyclables, such as plastic, produces energy, but also pollution. Some studies, have found the incineration facilities release more harmful chemicals, such as mercury and lead into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants.

Too, there’s a problem with contamination. Most of us do a very poor job of sorting through the recyclables we place into the bins. The contamination reduces their value.

In Ketchum, the Mountain Express reports that Blaine County lost $24,000 on its recycling program last year. Paper was part of the problem. Bales, which not long ago sold for $100 each, were worth nothing.

Last week, county commissioners agreed to pursue a limited form of paper recycling focused on easily identifiable types. If the contamination can be reduced from 5 percent down to almost zero, a firm in Twin Falls, about two hours away, will pay $65 per ton. To that end, only newspapers and office papers will be accepted.


Income gap prominent in clientele of ski areas

ASPEN, Colo. – Go figure this. Ski passes have supposedly made skiing very affordable. But the income levels of the core skiers have been rising.

The Aspen Daily News, in an article about the heartburn caused by the Ikon and Epic passes, points to a report by Kelly Pawlak, the president of the National Ski Areas Association. In the winter, 2019, edition of the association’s magazine, she points out that skier days are flat, with fewer than 60 million visits since 2011.

But here’s this interesting fact: “About 27 percent of our guests have incomes of $200,000 or more compared to 5.8 percent of U.S. households,” the report noted. That’s up from 17 percent a decade ago.

In other words, while the U.S. population continues to diversify, customers of ski areas have not. Skiing remains predominantly a sport of affluent white people.


Snowmass at last OKs the sale of cannabis

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – Snowmass Village has finally warmed up to sales of cannabis. The slope-side town declared a moratorium in 2013 once sales of recreational cannabis became legal in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014. Nearby Aspen began sales that very first day.

But after five years, the town council has authorized sales beginning April 1. Taxes on sales have been projected to deliver between $195,000 and $585,000 annually, reports the Aspen Daily News.

Unlike some other Colorado towns, Snowmass will not specifically limit the number of stores. However, there are many restrictions on where stores can be located.

Vail remains the largest ski town in Colorado not to allow cannabis sales, although Mt. Crested Butte, Mountain Village, and several others also remain leery of authorizing sales.

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