Along with the elation of the first great powder day of the ski season this past weekend came a conflicting emotion: grief. Three skiers died in avalanches on Sunday. I first heard about the 13-year-old who was killed at Vail. Later, I read additional reports about avalanche-induced deaths at Winter Park and Steamboat. These were in addition to skier deaths at Copper Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass the previous week. The scary thing about the avalanches at Vail and Winter Park is that they occurred on resort terrain. Granted, the skier at Vail had ducked some ropes to a double-black cornice that was still closed off—an area for extreme experts only when it’s actually open. But how many times over the years have I seen the tracks leading under the barrier ropes and disappearing off into the “closed” terrain?
Some friends and I were also among the thousands of powder-deprived Front Rangers last weekend who headed west on I-70 into a storm cloud projected to dump copious amounts of snow onto the slopes. Finally, the snow gods are acquiescing. The flakes started to fly on Saturday evening, and on Sunday morning we awoke to 10 inches of fresh snow in Summit County—with snowfall still coming down. We headed to Breckenridge and waited impatiently for Chair Six—which services some notoriously good powder terrain—to open. All morning, we heard the distant thunder of dynamite as they blasted for avalanche control. The snowpack was understandably unstable, having received paltry snow accumulation all season. With almost a foot of new powder atop the weak layers, the Colorado Avalanche Center warned of high avalanche danger all weekend. (For more information on becoming avalanche aware and snow safety education, see "Sliding Scale" in this year’s 5280 Mountain Guide.)
Directly off the lift, we traversed far so we could to get the most untouched snow we could find. I distinctly recall a moment where we stood at the ropes of a closed-off portion of that bowl, staring at the seemingly beckoning powder field on the other side. It was part of the resort's terrain, but they hadn't opened the trail yet. We watched a couple of brazen skiers duck the rope and disappear into a cloud of powder—and, sure, maybe we thought about it—but in the end we didn't cross under. Our run was challenging enough as we sliced through it, and we were hyped with exhilaration when we reached bottom.
Little did we know that 30 minutes down the road, a 13-year-old boy was making a different decision. It’s a tragic reminder that we made the right choice. Why everyone should make that choice, even on the most epic powder day. Even when you haven't seen good snow since last season. Those 10 minutes of powder turns just aren't worth your life.
Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those skiers.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Hillard.