Human-triggered avalanches rise in the Colorado backcountry

An uptick in human-triggered avalanches over the past week appears to have been caused by an increase of people seeking recreation in the backcountry, combined with weather conditions that increased the avalanche risk.

That’s the conclusion of Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which has reported 34 human-triggered avalanches in Colorado since March 20.

“We’re talking to shop owners in mountain towns around the state that are seeing their inventory of backcountry touring equipment get sold out,” Greene said. “And that’s not, like, just one store, it’s a bunch of stores in a bunch of different locations. There definitely seems to be more people interested in backcountry recreation because of some of the limitations that are out there with the ski areas.”

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Greene’s concerns were echoed by Steve Wilson, a public information officer for the Alpine Rescue Team, a volunteer group which conducts search and rescue operations in Jefferson, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties.

“There’s the uptick in backcountry activity because the frontcountry is closed,” Wilson said. “That’s also leading people that are less experienced into the backcountry at a time when our emergency services are already highly taxed. It’s the perfect storm.”

CAIC doesn’t have numbers to compare recent activity to what might be considered normal, because avalanche frequency rises and falls based on weather and snow conditions.

“There is no ‘normal,’ ” Greene said. “We have clusters of human-triggered avalanches that just happen when the avalanche danger rises, and then they dissipate. What we’ve seen is certainly a notable amount of human-triggered activity in a short amount of time.”

The most recent human-triggered avalanche occurred Wednesday above the west portal of the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels in Summit County.

“There was a party of two backcountry tourers, one a snowboarder, that were riding above the portal and they triggered an avalanche that ran down and covered the access road with avalanche debris about 20 feet deep and about 300 feet wide,” Greene said.

There were no injuries in that incident, but on Tuesday, a snowboarder in the backcountry near Telluride had to be evacuated by helicopter and taken to the hospital, according to the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office. A post on its Facebook page said, “Sheriff Bill Masters wants to remind people of the dangers of the backcountry ‘especially in light of COVID-19 when our local resources are stretched and incidents like this stretch them even more. People need to use their friggin heads.’ ”

On Saturday, Alpine Rescue Team responded to reports of a slide on Mount Trelease, which is adjacent to the Loveland Ski Area on the north side of Interstate 70. Also responding were the Clear Creek County Sheriff and Clear Creek Fire. Flight for Life also responded, Wilson said, offering an eye in the sky. Ultimately they came to the conclusion that while the slide probably was human-triggered, no one was caught in it.

“We’re used to tricky avalanche conditions,” Wilson said. “We’re used to responding to avalanches, because that happens every year. But all of those things are magnified right now because less-experienced people are continuing to go in the backcountry.

“It’s not like we’re not going to respond, but we have to deal with it differently than we would have any other time,” he said. “That’s every link in the chain of emergency services from first responders of the rescue team to the ambulance to the helicopter, all the way to the hospital. And this is not the time you want to be in the hospital.”

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