The evening presentation is an open forum designed to provide members of the San Juan Mountain community with an op-portunity to come together and share stories about close encounters with avalanches. The intention of discussing past avalanche accidents is to learn more about backcountry decision making so people can learn from their own and others' mistakes.
"If you ski or recreate in the backcountry around Telluride for long enough, the odds are you will have an avalanche encounter," says Peter Inglis, co-coordinator of the forum.
Inglis, who is also a member of the Telluride Ski Patrol's Snow Safety team, reports that avalanche danger is currently on the rise, due to the Wednesday storm that dumped upwards of 14 inches of wet, heavy snow across the San Juans. The new snow is not likely to make a strong bond with the old, crusty layer underneath, creating an environment conducive to avalanches.
"People tend to be less cautious in avalanche terrain when there haven't been any recent deaths or accidents in the area," Inglis says. No serious avalanche accidents have been reported in the San Juans surrounding Telluride this winter, however it has been a different story elsewhere.
Earlier this winter, the backcountry terrain around Jackson Hole, Wyo., saw two avalanche-related deaths occur within a week of each other. During that same time frame, two snowmobilers were killed in an avalanche in northern Colorado. In Europe, the French Alps are experiencing one of the deadliest winters on record, with 11 off-piste avalanche deaths reported at ski areas around the region.
"This forum serves as a reminder that it is important not to become complacent, even if there hasn't been an avalanche death in the area lately or you've never had a close call with an avalanche," Inglis says.
In contrast to this year's relatively calm avalanche activity, three high profile "close calls" affected Telluride-area skiers last winter. Jerry Roberts, a Colorado Avalanche Information Center Forecaster, was completely buried by an avalanche on Red Mountain Pass on Feb. 13, 2005. Roberts's skilled ski partners were able to locate him with avalanche beacons and dig him up within seven minutes of being buried, saving his life.
Local skier Brian O'Neill was caught in an avalanche on the very same day on this side of the San Juan Mountains. The slide O'Neill triggered in upper Bear Creek took him for a 2,200-foot ride over several cliff bands, breaking his neck. Steve Cieciuch was caught in a slide in the Selkirk Mountains of Canada in January of 2005. The avalanche took Ciecuch for a dangerous ride through a thick stand of old growth trees, shattering his right leg and claiming the life of his good friend and colleague, Steve Butts.
Through discussion of past avalanche accidents, it is the intention of Avalanche Forum coordinators to help backcountry travelers learn more about backcountry decision making.
"This forum is patterned after the book Snowy Torrents, which documents avalanche incidents both deaths and close calls and is used widely in avalanche education classes," Inglis says. "By learning about what went wrong in these accidents, people can equate that to their own experiences in the backcountry, in regards to problem solving, route selection or group dynamics."
Monday night's forum, the last of the winter season, is free (Search and Rescue certificates and books will be available for purchase) and begins at 7 p.m. at Rebekah Hall in Telluride. The San Juan Field School and the Telluride Ski Patrol invite others to tell their stories as well. Please call 728-4101 if you would like to be a part of this event.