Playing a numbers game

Stack the odds against danger with education

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By all accounts, Michael Gebhardt was an experienced out-of-bounds skier who ventured into the backcountry with the proper training and equipment to help him avoid, or survive, an avalanche. In a slide last week on Soda Mountain, he died anyway.

The 26-year-old Steamboat Springs man's tragic death is a reminder for all -- and particularly for experienced backcountry enthusiasts -- that surviving avalanches is playing a numbers game. The best way to stack the odds is to take proper precautions to identify and avoid slide-prone slopes.

And as more people push the boundaries in search of fresh snow, the odds of having more problems will only increase, avalanche experts say.

"One of the problems is most of us tackle steep slopes, and nothing happens. We just get this positive reinforcement that it is OK," said Dale Atkins of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "If you don't understand what is going on, in essence, you are playing a deadly game of Russian roulette."

Gebhardt's death was the second avalanche fatality in Routt County in 30 years. For a country that averages 27.1 avalanche deaths a year, one-third of which happen in Colorado, Routt County often has been viewed as a relatively safe haven from sliding snow.

But that is a wrong and dangerous perception, Steamboat Ski Area Avalanche Team Leader Jeff Hirschboeck said.

"There is this perception that Routt County doesn't have many avalanche areas, and I would argue any slope (with a pitch) over 30 degrees is a potential avalanche area," Hirschboeck said. "We have many more avalanche areas than most people perceive."

Until 2001, Routt County had not seen

a single avalanche death in 30 years. That ended when Sean Clancy, 34, a local construction worker, died in a snow slide on Farwell Mountain in North Routt County. He was with a group of people using snowmobiles to access untracked backcountry skiing.

Routt County Search and Rescue member Tom Scilacci said the team has gone on three avalanche missions -- two in Routt County and one in the Moffat/Rio Blanco county area -- in the past four years. All involved fatalities, Scilacci said.

Avalanches, and fatalities, could increase as more people use snowmobiles to access untracked terrain and take runs on risky slopes.

"They are going to more and more places into the backcountry, slopes we never touched 30 years ago," Hirschboeck said. "We are going to have more of these events."

Atkins said snowmobiles are a great way to get into the backcountry and give backcountry skiers a way to complete more runs with less time and effort. But although using snowmachines can create a great experience, it also brings more risks.

Snowmobiles take people out faster and farther into the backcountry, literally zooming by the avalanche indicators that backcountry skiers, traveling slower and closer to the snow, would tend to pick up, Atkins said. Also, better ski and snowmobile equipment has allowed people to tackle more difficult and steeper slopes.

"Fifteen, 20 years ago, very few people ventured out on these slopes, and once they did, they tended to be very experienced," Atkins said. "Now, all it really takes is someone with a little athleticism and a desire for adventure to get out in a slope like that and have a lot of fun."

And when people get out to the slope, Atkins said, they can have a hard time turning around and getting to a gentler slope if they sense the conditions are too dangerous.

"One of the hardest things for people to do, once they travel into the backcountry, is to say, 'No, not today. I am going to pick a different slope,'" Atkins said. "That kind of decision can save your life."

A house of cards

Gebhardt was backcountry skiing with his brother, Philip, and two friends, who were using snowmobiles to access untracked terrain.

Gebhardt's friends said he was an excellent skier, had experience in the backcountry and knew Buffalo Pass well. A graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School, Gebhardt also was well-versed in avalanche safety, and his group had brought standard avalanche rescue equipment -- beacons and shovels -- with them on the ski trip.

But the avalanche buried Gebhardt under 3 feet of snow. Even with the help of his locator beacon and shovels the group had brought for just such an emergency, it took more than eight minutes for the group to find him and shovel him out. The Routt County coroner ruled the cause of death as suffocation.

The avalanche center investigated the accident and determined the avalanche that caught Gebhardt was 30 feet wide and fell about 200 vertical feet, Atkins said. The avalanche occurred on a slope of about 38 degrees. The accident demonstrated that even small avalanches can be deadly, Atkins said.

The center classified the slide as a hard-slab avalanche, meaning it sent down huge blocks and chunks of snow that can weigh hundreds and thousands of pounds.

"He likely hit the wrong spot on the slope, the weakest point," Atkins said.

Avalanches seldom happen naturally. Most avalanches are triggered, and very often that trigger is a skier, he said.

People also get lulled into a false sense of security by watching others go down a slope before them, and assume that a slope that is safe for one skier is safe for all. But Atkins noted that many avalanches are not triggered by the first person down the slope, but by the fifth, 10th or even the 100th skier.

"We know, looking at accident investigations, many times it is not the first person on (the slope)," Atkins said. "But if you hit it at the weakest spot, the whole house of cards tumbles."

Looking beyond the slope

Anyone who ventures out in the backcountry and to slopes steeper than 30 degrees should carry an avalanche locator beacon, probe pole and shovel, Atkins and Hirschboeck said. Avalanche beacons, which cost $200 to $300, transmit signals to other beacons in the party. The device helps locate someone buried under the snow. A probe pole is use to poke down through the snow in an attempt to locate a person.

But those three pieces of equipment are reactive rather than proactive -- they are for finding someone after an avalanche happens, Hirschboeck said.

High-tech equipment does not exist for testing whether an avalanche could occur or whether a slope is stable. But there are simple tests that can give indicators of avalanche risk, he said.

Just looking at a slope is not going to alert a person to potential avalanche danger, Hirschboeck said. It takes digging into the snow and looking at the layers of snow and how well they are bonded together.

"You have to dig. You have to feel it and make the decisions based on what you see. Otherwise, it is just a guess," he said.

Similar to how layers of rock speak to the geological history of the earth, layers of snowpack speak to the the history of winter storms and the stability of the slope.

Right now, the snowpack has 30 to 40 miniature layers and four to five major layers, Hirschboeck said.

Winter storms are not the only factor in determining avalanche risk. How much traffic the slope has seen, the directional exposure of the slope and the time of year also come into play in creating avalanche conditions, Hirschboeck said.

Hirschboeck recommends carefully testing the snow before going down a slope, using methods taught in avalanche safety clinics. Education, through avalanche classes and through going into the backcountry with experienced people, is the best way to learn the tests and how to interpret snow pack. Hirschboeck also encourages people to practice testing the snow regularly, even if it means digging snow pits in their back yards.

"If you don't do these tests, to say 'I think the slope is stable,' it is no different than taking a coin and flipping it," he said.

Atkins advises people to check the avalanche forecast, which for Routt County can be found on the Internet at http:// geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche. He also said backcountry recreationists should keep on the watch for other avalanches that have occurred in the area, a sure sign of unstable snow.

Even after skiers determine the slope is stable, Hirschboeck recommends continued precautions on steep slopes. Never go into the backcountry alone, and even with a groups, Hirschboeck said, skiers should go with people they can rely on if they get caught in an avalanche.

Hirschboeck also recommends skiing slopes one at a time and having a plan for getting down the mountain if snow should start to slide.

Survival a matter of luck

Statistics indicate that for every 15 people caught in an avalanche, 14 live. For those buried under the snow for 30 minutes, the survival rate is 50 percent. The survival time is much lower, a matter of a few minutes, for those who are buried face down in the snow and with no air space, Atkins said.

Three-fourths of avalanche victims die from suffocation; the remainder die from injuries caused during the slide.

"Once one is caught, it doesn't matter how skilled, how good you are, what kind of gear you have," he said. "Your survival is a matter of luck."

Atkins' agency tries to investigate every major avalanche accident in the state, in hopes of finding lessons on how to avoid them. Very often, the events are the same story, it is just the names and locations that change, he said.

"Something we try to do is point out the things that happen. Things that people did right and things that people did wrong," Atkins said. "It is really easy for people to do things wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. Frankly, most of us get lucky and go home."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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