Fields of pristine snow blanket the ridge line of Big Agnes in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on Friday. It may look pretty, but the Colorado Avalanche Information Center included Steamboat Springs in its warning of elevated risk for avalanches in a statewide assessment Friday. Deep-slab avalanches have taken a heavy toll on the state recently, most recently killing five experienced backcountry snowboarders last weekend at Loveland Pass.

Michael Martin/courtesy

Fields of pristine snow blanket the ridge line of Big Agnes in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on Friday. It may look pretty, but the Colorado Avalanche Information Center included Steamboat Springs in its warning of elevated risk for avalanches in a statewide assessment Friday. Deep-slab avalanches have taken a heavy toll on the state recently, most recently killing five experienced backcountry snowboarders last weekend at Loveland Pass.

Loveland avalanche leaves impact on Steamboat skiers

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— The Snowsports Industries of America Snow Show is a massive annual product in Denver, hundreds of retailers sprawling across the Colorado Convention Center and catering to thousands of convention-goers.

Spend enough time at the February event and the first impression of the snow sports industry changes. There’s a lot of hoopla and a lot of people around, but the industry is not huge and sprawling; instead it’s small and tight knit.

“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Mike Martin, Colorado Mountain College ski and snowboard business teacher, said earlier this winter.

So when five backcountry snowboarders tied to the industry were killed last week in an avalanche on Loveland Pass, the effects rippled across the industry and certainly into Steamboat Springs.

Joe Timlin, Ian Lamphere, Chris Peters, Rick Gaukel and Ryan Novak were killed in the slide. Jerome Boulay was the only survivor of the group of six, together that day for an event that served as a fundraiser for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

They had been traversing along the bottom of a North-facing slope when it came down on top of them. Despite the precautions they took, they all were swept up by the slab, which broke as deep as 12 feet, nearly to the ground.

The slide was the deadliest in the state in 50 years and pushed the number killed by avalanches in Colorado this season to 11.

“It’s obviously very tragic,” Martin said. “I knew Joe, and I knew Ian. We weren’t close, but I knew Joe pretty well. We were working on a project together. It’s a huge blow.”

Martin himself was out of town and was chilled later to notice he’d been sent an invitation to the event by Timlin.

For Martin and other Steamboat Springs backcountry enthusiasts, the avalanche was more than something to grieve. They’re hoping it can serve as an eye opener and perhaps lead to better avalanche preparedness training in the future.

“It serves as a reminder of just how important that trip planning and those decisions can be before you head out,” Martin said. “Maybe we need to re-evaluate how we educate people about avalanches and look into what we can do to find and spread better forms of education and curriculum. We need to do what it takes to have people get a better sense for how it all works.

“This won’t affect the popularity of backcountry, but I hope the reaction from the industry is to make bigger strides in terms of educating people.”

Aryeh Copa was skiing at Winter Park the day of the avalanche and said his initial reaction was horror.

“When something breaks that deep, that’s pretty far below where most people would dig a pit to and where you’d expect it to have slid. The older I get, the more fearful and cautious I become. That’s just one more knock to keep the adrenaline junkie in me in check.”

Copa was settled somewhat after he learned more about the slide and had a chance to review the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report and view pictures of the area. He said its impossible to tell exactly what he’d have done had he been there, eyeing the same situation they were, but he said he’d like to think he’d have made some different decisions.

“I think I would have been extremely cautious after reading the CAIC report for that day in that zone. At least I hope it would have kept me off that slope, but you never know,” he said. “You see where the good snow is, and its hard to say what lures you there. But I am a little less freaked out about it after reading the reports and knowing all of the information.”

He said that avalanche and others, including one that killed a snowboarder near Vail, have ensured he’s in no hurry to begin his annual spring skiing treks, trips that often include areas outside Routt County.

This April mostly has been spent skinning up Mount Werner, a mountain with several potential slide spots, but one with which Copa said he feels comfortable.

“I’m still waiting another week,” he said about expanding his terrain. “I’m definitely going to play it safe. One solid week of weather like this and everything could change, and many of the good lines in Colorado could be safe and doable.”

The freeze-thaw cycle of warmer days and cold nights will help the layers of snow bond together, something erratic temperatures and snowfall during the season did not allow.

Still, he said he’ll approach those trips more carefully than he ever has.

“Wait for freeze-thaw cycle if you’re going to get out of town, and if you’re going to ski terrain you don’t know and haven’t been monitoring, start monitoring it now,” he said. “There’s nothing worth dying over.”

Different snowfall and weather this winter in Routt County, where avalanches usually aren’t as persistent a problem anyway, produced what some hope is a more stable snowpack. Martin logged a long day in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on Friday and said he found plenty of delicious snow.

Still, the risks don’t go away.

The CAIC’s statewide assessment of avalanche conditions still is higher than typical danger, and another big slide — one with no injuries — swept down Peak 6 above Breckenridge on Friday.

The center also reports that recent snowfall in the Steamboat area, along with several wind and dust storms, has elevated local avalanche danger.

“Loose, wet avalanches on sunny and low elevation slopes will become more frequent and easier to trigger,” the report said of north and east zones, including Steamboat. “As temperatures rise above freezing, the snow surface will rapidly turn into a soggy mess.”

It’s nothing to be taken lightly.

“We have a complicated snowpack this year and more so than ever its important to exercise caution, use good techniques and skills and practice everything you’ve learned,” Martin said. “Get out, get educated and keep those skills fresh so you’re not caught off guard. Those guys, they didn’t just throw caution to the wind. They had the right mindset but just didn’t have the perfect execution of it.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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