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Avalanche Kills Wolf Creek Ski Patrol Director 23 November 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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Wolf Creek, February 2010

At 7:45 this morning, while conducting avalanche mitigation work, Wolf Creek Ski Patrol Director Scott Kay was engulfed by a slide. He didn’t survive, and for the first time in more than 17 years, an in-bounds avalanche had claimed the life of a patroller. It was so unlikely, so astonishing, and so terribly terribly sad.

The mountain had already received 52″ for the year, and the 13″ Wolf Creek reported overnight was the largest total in the state according to Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade association representing all but Vail’s ski areas in Colorado. The wind had howled through the night, loading snow into slabs on top of an unstable snowpack, and this morning, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) upgraded its avalanche watch to a warning for the San Juans.

But patrollers at Wolf Creek deal with dangers like throughout—at Colorado’s snowiest resort, they have to. A team from CAIC will visit tomorrow to learn more about the cause of the slide, standard procedure in the event of a fatality, and Wolf Creek will reopen in Kay’s honor after closing for the day. For the time being, we’re left wondering how and why the slide occurred.

I write about this because I have skied Wolf Creek before, spending time on “Glory Hole” where the slide occurred but never really consider the mitigation work necessary to make ski areas safe for the millions of skiers who descend on the slopes each year. We complain so often about ropes and closed terrain, but an in-bounds avalanche as anything other than the result of control work is almost unheard of. Patrollers do all the heavy-lifting to provide an essentially effortless ski experience. Just ask the folks who do ski backcountry lines: they’ll spend thousands of dollars on gear and tens of hours in avalanche training classes to feel prepared for only the tamest slopes. There’s a lot to learn.

Certainly, skiing claims lives every year, but the tragedy strikes home when the victim is one of the sport’s own, reminding us that even the proper precautions sometimes fail to suffice. Every time I ski powder in the trees, I’m reminded of the two instructors who died last year in Colorado, in Steamboat and Wolf Creek I believe. They’d lost sight of friends in the forest—just a little ahead or behind as seems to happen all the time when skiing in the trees–and had fallen into tree wells. Both died before anyone could find them.

We can all imagine ourselves in such a scenario, and perhaps that explains the overwhelming support following tragedies like last year’s and today’s. So I’ll join with the hundreds of others in offering my condolences. It’s a sad day for the Colorado ski community, but tomorrow brings another day and another storm, the reasons we joined that community in the first place, and the reasons we’ll ski again.

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Comments»

1. Mere - 23 November 2010

All of you skiers out there take this to heart and be safe and careful.


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