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Mountain News: This time, the avalanche story has no obituary


An unnamed man lives today in Durango partly because he and his companion took all the right tools on a backcountry skiing trip. But he also got lucky. Very lucky. Avalanches, like the one pictured here, can strike without warning, but there are numerous precautions backcountry adventurers can take.

DURANGO, Colo. — An unnamed man lives today in Durango partly because he and his companion took all the right tools on a backcountry skiing trip. But he also got lucky. Very lucky.

The man, who the Durango Telegraph said declined identification for fear of scaring the bejesus out of his loved ones, had skinned up the Deer Creek drainage between Durango and Silverton. It's considered to be a "safe" place when avalanche danger is high.

But he and his buddy, 49-year-old Mark Helmich, a split-boarder, lost their way during the stormy day. Beginning their descent, they were triggering slides. Mistakes had been made. They chose not to return uphill and risk triggering even larger avalanches. Instead, they elected to ride down the final pitch to Highway 550, where their car was parked.

That's when the snow slid, taking him over a 7.6-metre cliff and burying him in the pile of snow along the highway.

Helmich immediately charged over the cliff, too. Time was critical. They both had avalanche transceivers. He located the signal from his companion then used a probe pole to locate the body. This took five minutes. Then he dug furiously with his shovel.

"I did a whole lot of praying," he told the Telegraph. "It's definitely pretty lonely, being by yourself and digging. It was feeling surreal. Until you're in that situation, you can't understand what it's like."

More luck came along in the form of Mike Barney, who is an instructor at the Silverton Avalanche School. He took over the digging from the exhausted Helmich. Finally, 20 minutes after the slide had occurred, they had cleared the snow to the head of the victim.

He was still breathing, still conscious. He had been unable to deploy the airbag, but did mange to get the straw from an AvaLung into his mouth. It was just enough to save his life.

The moral of this story probably should be that you need every tool available in avalanche terrain along with competence in use of those tools. But add it all up and you may still need some luck to survive even a small avalanche.

Mike Cooperstein, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, pointed out that 25 per cent of all avalanche victims die from being hit by trees or rocks or falling off cliffs even before being buried by snow. About 72 per cent of avalanche victims die from asphyxia, or breathing their own carbon dioxide underneath the snow.

He said the statistics supporting the usefulness of saving lives is more clear-cut for air bags, and statistics supporting the use of AvaLungs are promising.

The website for Black Diamond Equipment, manufacturer of AvaLungs, had this testimonial from an individual identified as "Jeremy" from Durango.

"I have worn my AvaLung for at least six years without ever having to use it," he wrote. "I don't ski every run with it in my mouth but it's great to have it available for those scarier than normal runs. Last Monday I triggered an avalanche and ended up immobile buried under four feet (one metre) of debris. Fortunately I was able to keep the AvaLung mouthpiece in my mouth during and after the slide. I was able to breathe normally for 15 to 20 minutes while my partner initiated a beacon and probe search and dug me out.

He added this: "CAIC reminded me the next day that over 15 minutes was often fatal due to asphyxiation. I escaped without injury at least partially due to my AvaLung."

The CAIC says that if everyone wore an avalanche transceiver and an airbags, two of three people who die from asphyxia would live.

Prodigious storms both thrilling and a challenge

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Jim Schmidt, a former mayor of Crested Butte, has been shovelling snow there for 40 years. Sunday was the first day in three weeks that he could take a break. That's good, because he's running out of places to put it.

"I'm a pretty tall guy, and I am throwing it pretty much as high as I can throw it, 7.5 to 8 feet (2.5 metres)," he said Monday afternoon. "It's too high for a snow-blower."

Schmidt remembers a winter about nine years ago that stacks up with this one and perhaps several in the late 1970s. By early January, 9.3 metres had fallen in one of those winters, 1977-78, compared to four metres this winter.

Since Christmas, though, the storms this winter have been prodigious. Writing in the Crested Butte News, staffer Alyssa Johnson said she felt a "thrill at living in a place that can get so much snow, and where the people celebrate its arrival."

Where to put the snow?

"The general rule is that your snow shouldn't leave your property," said Peter Daniels, the deputy marshal for Crested Butte. "Unless you're paying to have someone come haul the snow away, you need to find a way to keep it out of your neighbour's area and out of town streets and paths."

Space is becoming an issue. When Schmidt got to Crested Butte, fewer people had cars. Now everybody has a car, and some people have several. Vacant lots that once were used as snow dumps have mostly been built on. But the town has invested heavily in snow-moving equipment. It now has three front-end loaders and a grader that can be used to move snow around and, ultimately, dump it outside of town.

And the snow this winter has been wet and heavy, not light and fluffy. Down-valley about 48 kilometres at Gunnison, it has actually rained.

All this has created a mess and heightened dangers. Because of concerns about safety for buses, schools were closed for the first time since Schmidt arrived 40 years ago. "And the snow keeps coming and coming," school superintendent Doug Tredway told the Crested Butte News.

Figuring out the place for wolves

CANMORE, Alta. — Wolves have been in the news from Alberta to Wyoming.

In Alberta, 10,000 people have signed a petition that they want wolves managed differently. Hundreds of wolves are killed in Alberta each year. Sometimes they are shot from helicopters. Other times they are poisoned with bait laced with strychnine.

The motives for killing the wolves are varied. Livestock ranchers want to reduce predation of cattle. Another motive is to reduce predation of the dwindling number of caribou in the province.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook reported that municipalities and other local governments are increasingly offering bounties for dead wolves. Hunting and trapping groups have also adopted bounties.

The petition seeks to prohibit the posting of bounties on wolves by individuals, clubs, special interest groups, or municipalities. As well, strychnine would be banned.

Kevin Van Tighem, a Canmore resident and critic of the bounties, told the newspaper that Alberta should manage wolf problems, not wolf numbers. Instead of randomly killing wolves, he said, wolves should be targeted specifically in the case of depredation problems. That keeps wolf packs intact.

"The theory around this — and the theory is well supported by research — is that when you have a stable wolf pack structure, you have old wolves teaching young wolves how to make a living," he said.

"That's one reason wolves are a social animal that stay in these groups for extended periods of time, except the ones that want to reproduce and go out and disperse. But the rest of them stay in the pack. So you have a constant teaching mechanism... When you break that up, what you're doing is truncating that education process, and you're creating an inefficient hunting unit that is sort of blundering a bit, and they kill what's easy. So it's likely they're going to kill livestock, because livestock are easy."

He said current practices also increase survival of pups, because competition for food within the pack is reduced, in turn leading to an increase in reproduction.

But what about the caribou? Dave Hervieux, the province's caribou management coordinator, pointed to industrial development in caribou range which primarily explains why only four of the 15 caribou populations are stable or increasing. But he said there are more wolves in caribou range, "and those wolves are preying upon caribou at greater rates that are not natural." In most cases, that predation is greater than what caribou populations can sustain.

In Wyoming, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney — the daughter of former U.S. Vice-president Dick Cheney — is attempting to override the Endangered Species Act in order to give Wyoming control over wolves. The same thing is going on in the Great Lakes states where wolves are found.

"Wyoming should be able to manage the grey wolf without outside interference," the congresswoman said in a statement quoted by the Jackson Hole News&Guide. The newspaper noted that a court in 2016 ruled that federal authorities were responsible for the nearly 400 grey wolves in Wyoming. That case was appealed, and a ruling is expected any day now.

Congress during the last 40 years has rarely removed federal jurisdictions from management of endangered or threatened species. However, it did so in the case of wolves in Montana and Idaho.