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Mountain News: Larger groups more likely to have fatalities



Go it alone in the backcountry? Conventional wisdom holds that you need companions should you get in trouble.

But a study of Italian and Swiss avalanches finds that solo travellers, or those in pairs, are less likely to be caught in a slide.

The study, noted the Billings Gazette, may reveal a simple component of human nature.

"When I go out in winter by myself, I ski pretty darn conservative," said Scott Toepfer, mountain weather and avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "I don't want to get caught in avalanche terrain."

The study by the SWL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, was published in the March issue of the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. The researchers found that though travelling in larger groups is a less common model of recreation, those individuals were more likely to be caught in an avalanche.

The researchers found that although groups of six or more people in both the Swiss and Italian datasets were responsible for only 10 per cent of all groups, they accounted for 23 per cent of all accidents.

Increased risk results from:

• A large group creating a higher load on the snow cover

• With more travellers on the snowpack, there's an increased probability one of them will hit a weak spot in the snow and trigger a slide.

• The slower decision-making process of groups could increase risk.

• Challenges in communicating with more people.

• There may be a heightened "risk-appetite" because the group could create a false sense of security for individuals.

Count this mountaineer as very, very lucky

JASPER, Alberta — Dana Ruddy suffered nine broken ribs, a punctured lung, a badly damaged knee, and bruises to his heart, spleen, and lungs. Yet he counted himself as lucky, as well he should.

Described by the Jasper Fitzhugh as one of the most experienced mountaineers there, the 34-year-old Ruddy and a companion were skiing in late February when he made a bad decision in route selection.

In attempting to take a shortcut, he triggered a Class 3 avalanche. The deep-slab slide was wide and long, but Ruddy tried to swim his way out, just as he had learned to do. He got snagged in a tree after a short distance and lived to tell the frightful story.

"Often times people get dismembered in that type of avalanche, and for whatever reason I survived," he told the Fitzhugh. "Everybody is telling me it's because I'm tough, but I think I got really, really lucky."

And yes, he will change his ways, he said. "That moment of complacency was so brief, the decision to ski across the slope was made in an instant, and I think I will be a little more cautious in my decision making and be a little more present."

Wolf was part of this guy's daydream

JACKSON, Wyo. — Brian Hayden was snoozing at a favourite spot a few kilometres out of Jackson in late February when he opened his eyes and saw what he thought was a dog about eight metres away. He didn't hear any people, and thought it strange. And then he opened his eyes wider.

"Holy shit, that's a wolf," he told himself.

The animal, which Hayden told the Jackson Hole News&Guide looked old and wore a tracking collar, was all by itself, staring intently, and for a while didn't seem inclined to leave.

"I've been close to coyotes, and they just boogie like nobody's business. But this guy, he didn't move."

Hayden said the staring match lasted for 20 to 30 seconds until he realized just how uncomfortable he was with the situation. "Get out of here," he remembered shouting.

"If you have ever been with a dog when he doesn't want to do something — he gives you that look like 'Oh, man, really?'— that's what he did," Hayden said. "He was like, 'I got to leave?'"

The wolf trotted off, dragging a clearly injured leg. Hayden's photos of the snow confirmed the dragging as well as the size of the paw prints.

Linda Merigliano, wilderness and recreation program manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, said the areas close to the town of Jackson are full of wild animals. "They're right in our backyard. It's an incredible thing that most parts of the country don't have," she said.

Heard about the ski town with plenty of housing?

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Did you hear about the ski town that has a thriving economy, plenty of snow, and no complaints about lack of affordable housing?

No? Neither has this correspondent. All the newspapers, in ski towns and elsewhere, are full of stories about the continuing existential angst about affordable housing.

That's not to say work isn't being done. Breckenridge and Summit County got to work years ago on adding affordable housing and never slackened from the effort, even in the darkest days of recession.

Now, the finishing touches have been put on Pinewood Village II, which consists of 45 one-bedroom and studio apartments designed to appeal to a slightly younger demographic.

"We thought it would be a good opportunity for people to get out of crowded roommate situations and have their own places," said Laurie Best, a planner in Breckenridge.

Breckenridge obtained the land in an exchange with the Forest Service. Eric Komppa, vice president of Corum Real Estate, a developer of the project, estimated that work started on the project 15 years ago.

Why pikas can hang on for a while longer

BANFF, Alta. — Might the future among the high mountains of Alberta be just a little less precarious for those noisy little rodents called picas? That's the latest evidence, according to speakers at a recent program in the Bow Valley that was covered by the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Wildlife biologist Chris Shank said pikas are vulnerable, but climate change seems unlikely to place them at risk of extirpation in Alberta by the end of the 21st century. But then again, if we can't figure out how to curtail planetary emissions of greenhouse gases, the pikas might have a sorry story ahead.

In the United States, some research has indicated the pika is suffering because global warming has brought higher temperatures to their western mountain homes. Pikas have already disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada.

A different view came from David Hik, a biologist in the department of biological sciences at the University of Alberta. He said emerging research shows pikas seem adaptable to different elevations, diets, and environmental conditions.

"My feeling is they are pretty resilient and, within the range of variation we expect in the next century, they'll probably be fine and be able to move upslope," said Hik.

"They can actually cope with pretty wide ranging conditions and variability. They've been around for a long time, through multiple glacial cycles, and yet are fairly widely distributed."

Hik said temperature is a good index to measure future vulnerability of pikas in the long term, but said what seems to cause declines in populations in the short term is the absence of winter snow, compounded by increasing rain-on-snow events.

Park City plants seeds for early April crowds

PARK CITY, Utah — Come April, Park City will be hosting its first Thin Air Innovation Festival. It's open to the credentialed public and credentials cost $300, explained The Park Record. What this will yield isn't clear, but the local chamber expects a crowd of 1,000 or so at a time of year when crowds at Park City tend to thin.

Binge drinking but otherwise good health

TELLURIDE, Colo. — A study released a year ago about healthiness of counties is drawing attention in Colorado ski towns. The study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that the resort mountain counties tend to have among the healthiest people in the land.

Past studies, such as by the Harvard Medical School, have also picked out mountain towns as a place of great health and longevity, although why exactly this is so hasn't been particularly well identified.

Part of it could be that people in ill health tend to move to lower elevations. People of greater wealth — and hence access to better health care — are drawn to mountain resorts. Plus — and this is important — mountain resorts tend to foster good health through greater emphasis on exercise and other good habits of healthy living.

This newest study finds some of the same patterns. Pitkin County leads Colorado, but two of Colorado's wealthiest, best-educated counties, Douglas and Boulder, both located at the foot of the mountains in metropolitan Denver, are close behind. Of the top 10 counties, seven are primarily what you would call mountain counties. Only one county located on Colorado's eastern plains is in the top 10 despite the fact that about half of Colorado is on the Great Plains.

In contrast, nearly all of the counties with poor health rankings are located in southeast and south-central Colorado, primarily in places of lower incomes and high Latino populations.

Newspapers that parsed the results noted that even the generally healthy mountain communities have their unhealthy activities. Binge drinking is a big one in ski communities.

San Miguel County, home to Telluride, ranked sixth healthiest among Colorado's 64 counties. But the report found 27 per cent of adults in San Miguel County had engaged n binge drinking from 2002 to 2012. This is defined as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion for men or four or more drinks on a single occasional for women.

The Daily Planet talked to Lynn Borup, executive director of the Tri-County Health Network. She said the town's status as a resort community and festival venue likely contributes to excessive drinking.

Statistics also show above-average use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. In 2013, between 6.7 and 8.1 per cent of students in Grades 6 through 12 reported using all three substances within the prior month, compared to the Colorado average of 5.7 per cent.

Pot outsells hooch in Aspen some months

ASPEN, Colo. — You think cannabis isn't a big thing in Aspen? Consider this. Last year, according to city records, the seven stores that sold marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes racked up $8.3 million in sales.

For three months of the year — March, July and December — cannabis revenues were greater than for beer and liquor stores. However, that excludes liquor sales at bars and restaurants. By the same measure, cannabis sales lagged that of beer and liquor for the year, but not by much, reported the Aspen Times, after studying figures released by city officials.

For the city, sales produced $200,000 in tax revenues last year.

This compares with $135 million in tax revenues and fees across Colorado levied against $1 billion in sales.

But what can be said about the effect of marijuana legalization on Aspen? The Times talked with Bill Linn, the city's assistant police chief. If anything, he said, legalization has lightened the load of police officers, who no longer feel compelled to seize the substance and then complete the paperwork.

Too, as compared to alcohol, it has a milder impact on civic order. "Marijuana doesn't exactly whip people into a frenzy to act out or go to a bar and pick a fight," he said.

However, the jury is still out, at least in the mind of police. "I think 10 years is a good time to look back and make that determination," Linn said. "Now, it's working out fine."

Tomatoes now sprout next to parking garage

JACKSON, Wyo. — Tomatoes began sprouting in Jackson Hole in February, and it's likely more veggies will be coming soon from the same source, a greenhouse constructed on the south-facing side of the three-storey municipal parking garage.

The project, called Vertical Harvest, is sponsored by a non-profit that aims to employ locals with moderate disabilities. The News&Guide reported that a full opening is expected in May, in time to deliver produce to local restaurants by early summer.

The total cost was $3.67 million, but a state grant covered $1.5 million.

Founder of Yellowstone Club mum about money

BIG SKY, Mont. — Remember that bright opening of the Yellowstone Club in the 1990s. The private ski area drew all sorts of big names, and Tim Blixseth and his wife were riding high.

But Blixseth went bankrupt in 2008 and his ex-wife got the resort. Creditors are still trying to get $250 million they say that Blixseth owes them. The Associated Press reported that the latest saga involves Blixseth's sale of a resort in the Mexican state of Jalisco for $13.8 million in 2011. This was in violation of the bankruptcy judge's order.

More important, perhaps, the money vanished. Blixseth has been in jail since last April after being found in contempt of court, because he won't reveal what happened to the money. The judge in this case says more than $2.6 million remains unaccounted for.