Mountain News: Another avalanche death on day of moderate danger 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - avalanche alert A new challenge for snowbikes has been noted in Colorado, where two people using these off-road motorcycles have perished in avalanches.
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  • avalanche alert A new challenge for snowbikes has been noted in Colorado, where two people using these off-road motorcycles have perished in avalanches.

ASPEN, Colo. — Again comes testimony that a slope with moderate danger can be a dangerous place indeed. The example this time comes from Maroon Bowl, which is adjacent to Aspen Highlands ski area.

The Aspen Times explained that three snowboarders were caught in an avalanche there on a north-facing, convex slope several hundred metres below the ridgeline. All three survived, but one of the three riders was turning blue before his companions reached him. He suffered a broken rib and a strained back and was pinned against a tree.

"Sear those characteristics into your brain so your spidery senses tingle and you reflexively avoid similar slopes," wrote Blasé Reardon, forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, in a posting on the agency's website.

The Times noted that both Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands had problems with snowslides, as temperatures stayed above freezing three nights in a row and climbed up to 10 degrees Celcius during the day.

Moderate avalanche danger had also been the warning in the Flattops Wilderness Area, between Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs. Two men were riding snowbikes when they were caught in a slide that ran only 61 metres and was just 0.6 metres deep. One man died but the other was uninjured.

Snowbikes are off-road motorcycles with snowmobile-like tracks replacing the rear wheels and a ski in lieu of the front wheel. They have been growing rapidly in popularity, The Denver Post reported. This was the second death in an avalanche in Colorado by a snow-biker.

"It is a new challenge that we are going to have to spend some time on addressing," said Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "Why people are being attracted to different places because of this new mode of transport?"

Roof caves in under weight of snow, ice

JACKSON, Wyo. — Heavy ice and snow caused a roof over three businesses in downtown Jackson to buckle. At least 80 people were in the building when the roof began giving way, but none were hurt, as the buckling occurred slowly.

"It came down three feet (one metre)," Mike Pacheco, owner of the Sears store, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide. "We went outside and then it came down another two feet (0.6 metre)." The roof also covered two other businesses, a gymnastics centre, and a bowling alley.

Steve Haines, the town's chief building inspector, said that the configuration of the roof made it more vulnerable to ice buildup "Once it became ice like that, it just stayed put," he told the News&Guide.

He also pointed to the building's age. It was constructed in the 1970s, before building codes required roofs that could support more weight. Jackson's building code now mandates new roofs that can withstand pressure of up to 75 pounds per square foot.

In Teton Village, at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the code requires 175 pounds. But mobile or modular homes may be built to withstand no more than 30 pounds per square foot.

"If you hear a pop or snap or something in the building, go outside, do a 360-degree look around," advised Rich Ochs, the Teton County emergency management coordinator. "Are you seeing walls buckling or cracks in the walls? That's stress on the structure."

Snow turns to rain in the middle of winter

ASPEN, Colo. — It rained again in Aspen recently, the kind of rain that Aspen might normally expect in late spring or fall. But it's deep winter, noted Mick Ireland, a former long-time elected official and journalist who has been in Aspen since the late 1970s.

"What once we disdained as 'Sierra Cement' suffered by the California resorts has become the Aspen norm," he wrote in the Aspen Daily News. "Gone in recent years are the snowfalls produced by the clash of cold, dry air with warm moisture, the overnight dump followed by cold, dry, sunny powder days. Skis no longer float so well, shovels are too heavy to lift, snowstorms are followed by warm, cloudy and too-often rainy days."

None of this is "proof" of climate change or global warming any more than throwing a snowball on the floor of the U.S. Senate is "proof" to the contrary, Ireland added, a reference to the antic of Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who rejects the conclusions of climate scientists about the human role in warming temperatures.

But the trend is clear: "In the past two years, I have had more running miles in shorts and T-shirt during the heart of winter than in the previous 35 years," Ireland wrote. "One can hear the crunch of dense snow under foot everywhere."

Even in the absence of federal policy to address climate change, efforts to tamp down greenhouse gas emissions continue in mountain towns of the West.

In Colorado's Gunnison County, located across the Elk Range from Aspen, local officials are renewing focus on a dormant climate action plan. But the difficulties were apparent at a recent meeting covered by the Crested Butte News. While much of the environmental community remains steadfastly opposed to hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to create the bonanza of natural gas, a local official promoted it as preferable to using electricity to heat homes and businesses. "Using electricity for heat is the least efficient way to heat," said John Cattles, the director of facilities and grounds.

In Montana, a steering committee has been created to put some energy behind the local climate action plan with the hope of mirroring work already accomplished in Missoula, Helena, and other Montana cities.

Holocaust-denier says music is another matter

JASPER, Albta. — Monika Schaefer plays the violin, and she applied last year for a municipal permit to play on local sidewalks in the townsite of Jasper for tips. The practice is called busking. She was rejected.

Screechy violin playing can be hard on the ears, of course, but her skill apparently wasn't in question. Her beliefs were. In a video, she had denied that the Holocaust occurred.

Appearing before local authorities last week, she made clear her wishes to be a street musician while rejecting what she calls the "thought police." According to the Jasper Fitzhugh, she said that "historical" thoughts should be considered separately from her musical aptitude. "These are irrelevant to busking," she said.

The Fitzhugh reported the comments of just one councillor, who called Schaefer's denial of the Holocaust "poison." "You present an interesting dilemma to me and the community on a bunch of different planes," Gilbert Wall told her. "There is a time, I think (when) you can't pick and choose how you want to be judged."

Jasper councillors also have to sort through the contention of some business owners that there's not enough room for both pedestrians and buskers during busy season. An added concern is that the musicians are drowning out the talks given by Parks Canada interpreters outside the post office.

Massive beast soon to greet Snowmass visitors

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — A massive beast larger than an African bull elephant of today, which can weigh over 6,803 kilograms, will greet visitors to Snowmass Village by 2019.

The beast will be a replica of a mastodon whose bones were found nearby when a reservoir was being excavated in 2010-2011.

The Aspen Daily News reported that the replica has been nicknamed Portaleu, because it was found near portable toilets at the paleontological excavation. The replica is also being fashioned based on the bones of one particular mastodon, of whom 85 per cent of the animal's bones were found. The excavation turned up remains of more than 40 mastodons.

The replica will stand four metres tall at the neck. In contrast, a horse stands about 1.8 metres tall at the neck.

The paleontological site, called Snowmastodon, was described by scientists as the best site for mastodons in the world as well as the highest-elevation site in which they had ever been found: almost 2,740 metres. In addition to mastodons, mammoths were also found at the site along with several other extinct species from the last interglacial period, from about 150,000 to 50,000 years ago, when much of North America slipped back into the deep freeze.

The replica mastodon will be placed at what is described as a "big public space" in Base Village, the real estate project now being completed at Snowmass Village. Snowmass Discovery, as the museum-type exhibit is being called, will open there in 2019.

A-Basin joining the big leagues of steep skiing

MONTEZUMA, Colo. — First we make things easier, then we make them harder. In skiing, we've seen evidence of both in the last 20 years.

The money in skiing has always been in the more moderate, intermediate-ready slopes. Think Vail, Snowmass, and Deer Valley. Advanced grooming techniques have made them easier yet, and then there are all the new ski technologies, especially the fatter, wider boards that began with the arrival of snowboards that have effectively made intermediates into experts.

We've gotten steeper runs, too. Under a headline of "Calling Real Skiers," The Denver Post announced another expansion for Colorado's Arapahoe Basin. This 468-acre expansion into an area of steep chutes, glades, and just a couple of intermediate runs "marks A-Basin's step into the big leagues of steep skiing, joining expert destinations like Alta, Jackson Hole, Crested Butte and Silverton Mountain," wrote the newspaper's Jason Blevins.

But here's what's really interesting about this expansion: The Canadian company that owns A-Basin said it expects to accommodate about 360 more skiers a day. Alan Henceroth, the general manager of A-Basin, said the expansion is more about meeting the demand of today's customers, who tend to be more skilled.

The Post noted that rent payments to the U.S. Forest Service have tripled in the last decade, a reflection of the ski area's revenue generation. One of Colorado's oldest ski areas, opening in 1946, A-Basin entered the 21st century with neither snowmaking nor a high-speed quad lift. It now has both plus the hair-raising steeps.

Plains bison returned to Banff National Park

BANFF, Alta.— Bison have returned to Banff National Park after an absence of 140 years, bringing tears of joy to the eyes of some local residents.

Sixteen animals — six bulls and 10 pregnant cows — were transplanted in late January into an enclosure 40 kilometres north of Banff. In 2018, they will be allowed to begin spreading throughout the park and wherever else they may choose to go.

"We did something very wrong when we eliminated bison from the landscape, and now we are doing something very right, and that is deeply satisfying," said Harvey Locke, the author of The Last of the Buffalo Return to the Wild.

One of the first superintendents of Banff National Park helped preserve the very last 86 plains bison left in existence in 1907. Those genetically pure animals were purchased by the Canadian government and relocated to Elk Island National Park near Edmonton. It is from that herd that these new bison have been relocated to Banff, the Rocky Mountain Outlook explained.

A captive herd of bison had existed in Banff, but they were woodland bison, not plains bison.

Banff National Park in 2010 approved the outlined plans for the reintroduction. An added element was the Bison Treaty between the Canadian government and 20 First Nations, including those with historic ties to Banff.

The treaty called for cooperation, renewal, and restoration while recognizing the cultural significance of the bison to indigenous cultures.

Bill Hunt, the resource conservation manager for Parks Canada, said many people think of grizzlies, wolves, and other large carnivores as keystone species. But a keystone species can be a prey of carnivores. The key criterion is the extent of ecological impact.

"What we are finding out about bison is that they have a similar role to play. They, in effect, modify and change the landscape they live in by their grazing and the way in which they dig holes or create hollows; all of it contributes to the food chain."

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