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Mountain News: Exceptional snow year, now slides and some deaths

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo.—The Colorado Avalanche Information Center described the snowy torrents thundering over the weekend as historic.
A 25-year-old man was recently killed by a roof avalanche in Crested Butte, Col. SHUTTERSTOCK

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 centre, told the Summit Daily News last Friday, soon after the avalanche cycle began.

First, there was the bizarre circumstances of the death of a 25-year-old man who was shovelling 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 centre, no one noticed the roof avalanche for about 10 minutes.

Help was summoned and they were located by probes. The second snow shoveller, 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 1.5 kilometres 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 shoveller had been rescued from a roof avalanche the weekend before.

CBS4 in Denver said the Crested Butte area had received more than 122 centimetres 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 eight 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 eight were on snowmobiles. Colorado led the death toll with seven 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 a loss of lives. The Aspen Times reported a snowslide in the Conundrum Valley, near the Aspen Highlands ski area, that was a 1.6 kilometres wide and tore down the valley, snapping mature trees, for 914 vertical metres.

"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 told 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 was six to nine metres of snow on the pavement before state crews intentionally triggered more slides, leaving up to 18 metres of snow. The new slide filled in the snowshed, too.