Beauty and the Beast: Avalanches and the Organization That Monitors Them
by Peter Shelton
Dec 05, 2007 | 668 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TELLURIDE, Dec. 6, 5:20 p.m. - The Reverend Marvin Hudson started up Red Mountain Pass from Ouray on the morning of March 3, 1963, with his two daughters, Pauline and Amelia.  It was snowing hard, but Rev. Hudson was called to preach that Sunday in Silverton—he’d done it many times before—and he was willing to risk the drive.

The East Riverside slide (where the snow shed covers the highway today) had run already, and a plow working the area had cleared a single lane through the debris. Hudson drove into the cut but lost traction and stalled. He got out to put chains on his tires. The plow driver was worried and started forward thinking he’d pull Hudson’s car out of the danger zone, but he was too late. The Riverside ran a second time exploding with a blinding white force that rocked the 20-ton snowplow back 10 feet.  

When the dust settled, there was a 30-foot wall of snow where the road had been. Seven days later they found the reverend’s body 280 feet down the canyon.  Six days after that they located his car and one daughter, 600 feet from where the slide had hit. The sedan was a barely recognizable tangle of steel: roof ripped off, hood and doors mangled. Incredibly, rescuers found a dozen eggs and a jar of cream unbroken on the back seat.

The body of the second daughter finally melted out in May, 88 days later.

Avalanches have been an awe-inspiring and unpredictable matter of life and death in the Colorado mountains since the silver rushes of the late 19th   century. In the rich ore triangle of Telluride/Silverton/Ouray, upwards of 200 miners, muleskinners, mail carriers and others met “Death’s embrace on the rueful slide.” That line ends a poem written in 1898 by another reverend, J.J. Gibbons of St. Patrick’s Parish, Telluride.

Since the mining days, Colorado accounts for roughly one-third of all avalanche fatalities nationwide, another 200 deaths, from 1950 to 2006.  Now the victims are people who love the snow.  An average of six people – backcountry skiers, climbers, snowmobilers – are killed each winter in the state.  Sixty-eight are caught and at least partially buried.  About 2,300 slides are reported each season with an estimated 10 times that many going unseen and unreported.

It’s only natural then that Colorado have something called the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.  And that the CAIC has pioneered a lot of what we expect now in terms of weather and avalanche forecasting, education and research.

It started in the late 1960s with a program called the Westwide Avalanche Network funded by the U.S. Forest Service and based in Fort Collins.  Until that time, data gathered on climate and snowpack conditions around the West was spotty at best.  Westwide’s goal was to pull in as much basic information as they could, from 35 sites around Colorado, and relate it to the avalanche hazard.  

By 1973, the outfit had a new name, the Colorado Avalanche Warning Program, and a new mission—to actually forecast, or predict the avalanche hazard and communicate warnings to the public. It was the first such forecast center in the U.S. and served as a model for subsequent programs in Washington State, which has the second highest incidence of avalanche fatalities in the country, and Utah, number three on the grim list.

For 10 years, the Avalanche Warning Program thrived under the guidance of Forest Service legend Art Judson and a wiry young meteorologist from Texas named Knox Williams.  Judson was the snow guy, and (at first anyway) Knox was the organization guy, making sense of the mountains of numbers.

Art and Knox centralized the analyzing of data and issued daily messages and warning bulletins as necessary.  Colorado’s population grew, and more and more people were getting out into the backcountry, into avalanche terrain. But the number of fatal accidents remained steady over the years, indicating perhaps that the bulletins were having an effect and public awareness was growing.

All the awareness in the world didn’t help Eddie Imel. He and his partner, Danny Jaramillo, were plowing on Red Mountain Pass the morning of March 5, 1992, when the East Riverside North (just north of the snow shed) buried their snowplow.  Jaramillo managed to dig himself out 18 hours later, but Imel perished, the third CDOT driver to die on the pass. The incident inspired a collaboration and a new task for Knox and the avalanche center: to provide specific forecasts for the Department of Transportation on its most slide-prone highways. No one has died (in avalanches) on the highways since.

Finding money for avalanche work has always been a problem. In 1983, the Forest Service pulled the funding plug as it dismantled its entire research project. Orphaned, Knox shopped the program around until he found a new home with the State of Colorado, as part of the Department of Natural Resources. A new home, another new name: the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. All good except there was no state money; the CAIC was on its own financially.

That is basically where things stand today, although a horizontal shift into the Colorado Geological Survey has made some oil and gas severance taxes available.  CAIC still needs to raise 75 percent of its operating budget from donations. OK, you knew I was getting to this: If you ski in the San Juans or drive anywhere on the highways of Colorado, you need to go to the CAIC fundraiser at The House in Telluride, Wednesday night December 12. Silent auction from 6 to 8 p.m. After-party rages ’til closing.

All winter long from its Boulder office the CAIC puts out the best daily weather forecast anywhere, produces morning radio updates and on-line am-and-pm weather and snowpack discussions (  And now CAIC has a new satellite office specific to the northern San Juans backcountry, with long-time skier and forecaster Mark Rikkers at the helm.  All the more reason to  contribute.

More on CAIC’s backcountry-specific program in Tuesday’s paper.  See you at The House.

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