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It was late in the day on Dec. 22 when the LaMair brothers finally reached the flashing lights of a parked ambulance on the side of Interstate 70. The time was 8:15 p.m. — almost five hours after Edwin LaMair had been caught in an avalanche in the East Vail Chutes.
A recent storm had blanketed the mountains, beckoning snow sport thrill-seekers eager to make the first tracks. Edwin and his brother Davis, both CU students, skied the same run earlier that morning and felt comfortable with how the snow was behaving. They were skiing smart, in 15-second intervals, with designated rendezvous spots, a technique used to ensure frequent meetings so they had an idea of where each of them was in case something were to go awry.
Davis dropped in first, with Edwin quickly following, skiing 30 or so yards to his right, divided by a stretch of trees. The run quickly turned into a disaster when what Davis initially thought was a thundering gust of wind turned out to be an enormous slab of snow rolling down the slope. The avalanche scooped up his brother and dragged him headfirst 800 feet down the mountain.
During the slide, Edwin was launched off of a 20-foot cliff and collided with multiple trees, resulting in a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right leg, and a partially torn PCL and fully-torn MCL in his left leg. Fortunately, he was never fully buried, and his brother was able to spot him as the snow began to slow down.
After quickly assessing Edwin’s injuries, it was clear ski patrol was needed. But they didn’t have much time — the sun was already setting, and the assistance of ski patrol was not guaranteed. Edwin managed to salvage one of his skis and could put some pressure on his right leg, despite the torn ligaments.
Meanwhile, ski patrol had decided the risk of rescuing the brothers on the mountain was too great. The weary skiers had serious ground to cover, in the dark, before they would reach any help. They soon found a skin track, the first packed snow they had seen in hours, which eventually led them back to the interstate where the emergency medical technicians were waiting.
The LaMair brothers are not your average weekend warriors out for a good time. They have been skiing in the backcountry for four years and have taken level 1 avalanche training courses with numerous refreshers. Even so, being in the wrong place at the wrong time was all it took.
“Anything can slide,” said Edwin. “It’s important to know where your partners are at all times.”
Fortunately for both of them, Davis was on alert and hurried down to his brother as quickly as possible. When asked about the experience, Edwin described it as “humbling and traumatic,” but with his ACL expected to recover this summer, he will be back on the slopes next fall, ready to shred again.
Not everyone caught in an avalanche is as lucky as the LaMair brothers. There have already been 17 avalanche-related deaths this year in the U.S. alone, slightly above average relative to recent seasons. It is crucial to remember that skiers and snowboarders are always subject to nature and its sudden displays of deadly force. Equipping oneself with the proper education, practice and gear is vital before venturing into the notoriously dangerous Colorado backcountry.
While avalanches are bound to occur wherever there is significant snowfall on steep terrain, Colorado is unique for a number of reasons.
Brian Pollock, director of education at Friends at Berthoud Pass, said Colorado snowpack is often referred to as intercontinental, meaning it is low in moisture, resulting in easily blown, unstable snow. According to Pollock, “new snowfall and a ton of wind equals unstable conditions.”
Tom Murphy, founder and director of operations at the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, believes the robust Coloradan ski population is another factor influencing the number of avalanches triggered in the state. With easy access to terrain such as Loveland and Berthoud Pass, hundreds of riders every week risk their lives for that indescribable thrill, and more people can lead to a higher risk for everyone.
Proper education is key for any skier curious about exploring the backcountry. While anyone can look up avalanche information online, experts like Murphy and Pollock believe taking a Level 1 avalanche training course is vital. In these classes, students learn how to properly use backcountry gear such as a beacon, shovel and probe, as well as how to survey terrain and snowpack for dangerous slopes.
Daily education about the conditions that may be encountered can be just as important. That information is available at Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website. The site is frequently updated with snow reports and avalanche conditions for all of Colorado.
Murphy and Pollock both agree that this tool can make a tremendous difference in out-of-bounds skiing safety.
“I really have faith in what they’re doing,” said Murphy. “It’s expert opinion at our fingertips.”
So let’s say you have taken your Level 1 avalanche course and you have checked the conditions on the CAIC website. Are you now ready to shred those powdery lines you’ve always been dreaming of? Not quite.
“Find a mentor,” Pollock said. Experience is often considered a great way to learn, and spending time skiing with those who have such experience can be very useful.
Paramount to the whole experience is understanding the limits of an unpredictable natural setting. Putting off an anticipated ski trip is worth the wait if it keeps you and your friends safe.
After all, a day of skiing inbounds is still a day of skiing.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Kevin Joyce at Kevin.firstname.lastname@example.org.