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6.11.2005

Avalanche threat lingers

From the Seattle Times

Summer is fast approaching, but the threat of avalanches lingers in many Western mountain ranges where it's been an unusual season for one of nature's more unpredictable phenomena.

Since late October, at least 27 people have died in the United States in avalanches, which is about the average. (An Alaskan student died earlier this month climbing Mount Logan in Canada's Yukon. )

What's unusual is that two of the deaths occurred in developed ski areas, including the most recent one last month in Colorado and another in January when a teenager was swept off a ski lift near Las Vegas.

In the previous 19 years, just three of the 416 known avalanche deaths in the nation — well below 1 percent — occurred within ski areas, according to the National Avalanche Center, in part because resort operators patrol their slopes.

"We at Squaw Valley have a group of us ... if it's a beautiful day or if it's a storm day, we communicate before we send anybody up onto the hill," said Jimmy King, mountain manager at Squaw Valley USA.

On a stormy day — and winds can average 150 mph over the ridges at the resort on Lake Tahoe's California side — workers start at the top with explosives to break up cornices and slabs of snow that fall harmlessly down the slopes.

"If I've got even just one single patroller that goes up there and says, 'I've got a problem, I don't like it,' we stop. We don't open to the public," King said.

Last month's slide at Arapahoe Basin near Breckenridge, Colo., occurred in the morning when snow usually is more stable. But in this case warm overnight temperatures had melted the snowpack, creating heavy wet slabs of snow, according to Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In southern Nevada, an expert said there may have been no way to predict the slide that killed a 13-year-old snowboarder at Mount Charleston.

"When this avalanche released, it was unprecedented," said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho, who investigated the slide.