AVALANCHE EPIDEMIC IN THE WEST

Snow slides trash Jackson Hole's new tram station and kill 11 in Utah, Wyoming and British Columbia
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Snow slides trash Jackson Hole's new tram station and kill 11 in Utah, Wyoming and British Columbia

Thick ground-level layers of sugary depth hoar snow continue to cause high avalanche hazard throughout western North America, as big snow dumps and high winds keep piling dangerous slabs atop the weak stuff. In the Rockies, avalanche hazard is so persistent and severe that experienced avalanche forecasters are seeing slides run on slopes where they've never been witnessed before.

In Colorado, two ex-ski patrollers were caught and killed in separate incidents- one on Aspen Mountain, another outside Crested Butte - while skiing areas they thought were safe. In the Tetons, a snowboarder was caught and killed by a massive slide while riding very steep, just-opened slopes in the Toilet Bowl area of Jackson Hole Ski Resort. He died after being buried only 10 minutes. The area was immediately closed again, but two days later, a slide released naturally from the resort's Upper Headwall and hit the newly opened tram building, ski patrol shack, and restaurant atop the resort, damaging the restaurant and trapping one employee inside.

Other close calls occurred in Utah's Wasatch and the Colorado Rockies near Vail. The Utah skier was dug up quickly by friends, unconscious but OK after an 8-minute burial. The Colorado skier suffered a broken leg.

At least nine snowmobilers died during this same period. One 15-year-old was caught, buried and killed in the Uinta Mountains of northeast Utah. While the incident is tragic, he was also sledding on steep, open, high-elevation slopes where a fatal slide was virtually guaranteed. In British Columbia, eight snowmobilers were killed near Fernie, which lies southwest of Banff. Details of the incident show just how crazy the hazard currently is:

A group of 11 men from the 4,000-person logging and mining community of Sparwood, B.C. were sledding in remote Harvey Creek. The snowmobile website snowandmud.com describes Harvey Creek as "an unreal place, with tons of bowls." Canadian avalanche forecasters describe it as "spooky" - a narrow, steep-sided valley with multiple slide paths intersecting at various points along the valley floor.

The beelers had split into two groups, one of four, the other of seven. The seven-person group was taking a break at the bottom of a slope when a cornice released high above them, either naturally or due to a collapse traveling long distances. A massive slide descended on the group, burying all seven. The other four sledders heard the commotion and hurried to dig the victims out. As they attacked the huge debris pile, another avalanche descended, burying all eleven.

Two of the four dug themselves out by hand after 20 minutes, and used beacons to locate and rescue a third, who was dug out, again by hand, after approximately 40 minutes total burial time (mighty lucky). Fearing a third avalanche, they ran for safety. Two were quickly picked up by a Provincial Emergency Services helicopter, which had been alerted by automatic distress beacons on some of the sleds.

Rescuers tossed bombs from a helicopter onto slopes above the accident site before conducting search operations. At the time of the accident, the Canadian Avalanche Centre had issued a hazard warning for the weekend following 10 days of heavy snowfall followed by a sudden warming trend.

In the eastern U.S., current conditions are generally more stable, although authorities in New Hampshire were warning that ice layers, new snow, and 60- to 80-mph winds early this week could create high hazard on Mt. Washington and neighboring Presidential Range peaks.

Be very, very cautious out there. Patience, my fellow lemmings. The winter is young and there'll be plenty of time for rad skiing, boarding, and shoeing once the snowpack stabilizes. But you've got to stay alive until then. --Steve Howe