Mountain Town News

Mountain Town News
Allen Best - 03/14/2019

Exceptional snow comes with high cost

CRESTED BUTTE – 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 center, told the Summit Daily News last Friday, soon after the avalanche cycle began.

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

Help was summoned, and their bodies were located by probes. The second snow shoveler, 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 a mile south of the town of Crested Butte. Another roof avalanche buried a 28-year-old man the evening before in Mount Crested Butte. He was treated for low core-body temperature. Yet another roof shoveler had been rescued from a roof avalanche the weekend before.

CBS4 in Denver said the Crested Butte area had received more than 4 feet of wet, heavy snow in the days prior to the weekend avalanches. More snowfall was predicted for this week.

Before the Crested Butte death, avalanche.org had reported 20 avalanche 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 - 2017. Alaska is second with 152 during the same period, followed by Washington, Montana and Utah.

Not all avalanches in Colorado last week resulted in loss of lives. The Aspen Times reported a snowslide in Conundrum Valley, near the Aspen Highlands ski area, that was a mile wide and tore down the valley, snapping mature trees, for 3,000 vertical feet.

“This is as big of an avalanche as this terrain can produce,” Brian Lazar, deputy director of the CAIC, said. “This is a landscape-changing event.”

In Summit County, A 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 reality, the town had been abandoned. Regardless, it was a big slide, but experts say the slide that occurred last week might have been even bigger.

Finally, U.S. Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton remained indefinitely closed as of March 5. The notorious Riverside slide had claimed many lives over the years until a snowshed was erected. This time it wasn’t enough. There were 20 to 30 feet of snow on the pavement before crews intentionally triggered more slides, leaving up to 60 feet of snow. The new slide filled in the snowshed, too.

Skier responsibility at stake in slides

JACKSON, Wyo. – Jeff Brines owns up to having disrupted the lives of many people who travel between Wyoming and Idaho. He’s sorry.

He was skiing above Teton Pass on the Wyoming-Idaho border on March 1. He’s done so 1,000 times, beckoned by the wonderful snow especially in an area called Glory Bowl. Brines and his dog were unhurt when he triggered an avalanche that closed the highway for most of a day. He had no immediate knowledge of whether the avalanche might have buried somebody below.

“That was one of the darkest moments of my life,” Brines told the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “That feeling that you might have hurt somebody else is something I hope I never feel again.”

Nobody on the highway was hurt or even hit by the slide. But there was great inconvenience. The slide occurred at 7:30 a.m. The highway, which connects Jackson to the commuter towns of Driggs and Victor, remained closed until 5 p.m. There’s another way, through a town called Alpine, but it adds more than an hour to the trip.

The News&Guide reports rising tension between backcountry users and Wyoming transportation officials. Local resident Jay Pistono, who spearheads much of the outreach work with skiers, says he has pushed the idea that those slide-prone areas, as delicious as the skiing can be, should be off-limits.

“You just don’t ski those runs,” he said.

Climate shift in ski resorts of the future

FRISCO – Climate change probably does not rank as the top worry for skiers and snowboarders this winter. After all, how long has it been since nearly everybody had snow like this?

But climate change does show up as a consideration frequently in a profile of SE Group, a Colorado-based firm that has been designing ski areas since the 1960s.

Chris Cushing, the principal, says warming temperatures have altered ski area design. Runs have become narrower, because wider ones are more expensive to maintain, and expansion areas have fewer south-facing, sun-exposed trails.

The story in Architecture + Design magazine also points to Deer Valley as an example of a resort where climate change has altered plans. Various factors, including climate change, resulted in a new base village being located farther up the mountain than is currently necessary. But, as Cushing puts it, there may be snow now, but wait a decade.

The story also points out that the greatest shift in ski resort design has been the almost mandatory contemplation of non-winter activities. “Having a business model that operates one season out of four is just not a good model,” Claire Humber, the director of resort planning and design for SE Group, said.

How to keep recyclables from landfills

KETCHUM, Idaho – Oh, what to do with those copies of the Idaho Mountain Express, Skiing or just about any other paper in Ketchum, Sun Valley and other communities of Blaine County.

China doesn’t want the bundles of mixed paper that local residents have faithfully carted to recycling centers – and hardly anybody else does either.

The Atlantic explains that the county eventually stopped collecting the mixed papers when the pile had grown to 35 bales. Instead of being recycled, the papers were taken to the landfill.

“For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China ... to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products,” The Atlantic explains. “But last year the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper – magazines, office paper, junk mail – and most plastics.”

There are no easy answers. Burning recyclables, such as plastic, produces energy, but also pollution. Some studies have found the incineration facilities release more harmful chemicals, such as mercury and lead, into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants.

Too, there’s a problem with contamination. Most of us do a very poor job of sorting through the recyclables we place into the bins. The contamination reduces their value.

In Ketchum, the Mountain Express reports that Blaine County lost $24,000 on its recycling program last year. Paper was part of the problem. Bales, which not long ago sold for $100 each, were worth nothing.

Last week, county commissioners agreed to pursue a limited form of paper recycling focused on easily identifiable types. If the contamination can be reduced from 5 percent down to almost zero, a firm in Twin Falls, about two hours away, will pay $65 per ton. To that end, only newspapers and office papers will be accepted.

Income gap prominent at ski areas

ASPEN – While ski passes have supposedly made skiing affordable, the income levels of core skiers also have been rising.

The Aspen Daily News, in an article about the heartburn caused by the Ikon and Epic passes, points to a report by Kelly Pawlak, the president of the National Ski Areas Association. In the winter 2019 edition of the magazine, she points out that skier days are flat, with fewer than 60 million visits since 2011.