Snowmobilers ignored warning signs in avalanche-prone area
Terrain south of Silt where 19-year-old snowmobiler Grant Walker was killed Sunday in a snowslide was ripe for avalanche.On Monday, members of search and rescue and an investigator from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center visited the scene of the accident, about three-quarters of a mile southwest of Twin Peaks in the Haystack Mountain area.”The area was more hazardous than initially reported,” said Garfield County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue president Lanny Grant. “It had a more severe slope than was first thought.”The hillside where the avalanche occurred was initially reported to be of moderate slope.It was also a favorite place for the group of snowmobilers who included Walker to play and “high mark,” that is, climb as high as possible before turning downhill, Grant said. But the slope of the hillside ranged between 32 and 37 degrees, prime angles for snow slides, he said. “It was much steeper at the top.”When Grant viewed the accident scene Monday, he noted signs that smaller slides had given way before a large slab avalanche let go that took Walker’s snow machine into the bottom of the gully, burying him in two to three feet of snow.Grant believes the warning signs for avalanche were evident in the area, but the snowmobilers ignored them Sunday.”There was a heavy cornice at the top that had broken off, triggering three to four slides that day,” he said. “They had been in there for a couple of hours. This is a historic slide area. There were obvious slide chutes.”After viewing the area where Walker’s body was recovered, it was apparent he triggered the slide as he traversed the side of the gully. Grant estimated from the tracks that were still visible Monday that Walker was about halfway up the slope when a slab of snow broke away and slid downhill.New snow that had fallen recently rested on top of a compacted, crusty layer of old snow and the vibration of the snowmobile caused the new, lighter snow to slide off in a block.”It carried him to the bottom of the gulch, about 150 yards,” Grant said.His companions found Walker’s snowmobile because a part of its windshield was protruding above the snow. They broke off tree limbs and used them for probing poles, and dug the snowmobile out with parts of the windshield, Grant said.”This is a dangerous area. It’s not a typical place where snowmobilers go,” Grant said. The snow was still unstable Monday. Grant said snow collapsed under the investigating team’s snowshoes and skis.Avalanche conditions Sunday, and continuing today, “are typical of statewide snowpack,” with warming temperatures cooling down the same day and new snow lying loosely on crusted snowpack. Snowmobilers and other backcountry visitors must be alert to danger signs, Grant warned. -Avoid slopes of 25 degrees or greater.-Avoid slopes with accumulations of wind-blown snow.-Use caution after a heavy snowfall and drastic temperature changes.-Avoid “terrain traps” such as gullies that have no escape routes.-Stay on ridgelines.-Each person in a party should carry an avalanche beacon, a shovel and probe pole, and should be trained in recognizing the signs of avalanche danger.
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