Avalanche season off to deadly start

WALDEN – Yet more evidence has arrived that an avalanche beacon is a tool, not a talisman. The unfortunate story for this message is told in the tragic death of 31-year-old Luke Oldenburg.

Oldenburg, a landscaper from Fort Collins, was with two companions on Dec. 2 near Cameron Pass, in Colorado’s Medicine Bow Range. The route they used to snowshoe to a bowl called Hot Dog is not uncommon, and located on a slope of only 24 degrees, below the normal threshold for soft slab avalanches.

He was wearing snowshoes with a splitboard on his back. All three men had avalanche transceivers and shovels, and one of his companions had a probe pole.

What caused the avalanche on the slope of 37 to 40 degrees above the men was not clear to investigators. The men may have triggered it, or it may have been natural. The avalanche danger that day had been classified as “considerable.” Still, about 90 percent of avalanche-caused deaths result from slides triggered by the victims.

The snow slide missed his companions but buried Oldenburg beneath 6 feet of snow. Using their beacons, the companions quickly located his body. However, even with shovels, it took several minutes to extricate his body from the concrete-like snow.

When they uncovered him, he had stopped breathing and his heart had stopped. They were able to resuscitate him, and then began pulling him down the trail in a sleeping bag. He was in a helicopter being attended by paramedics within three hours of the slide. Still, he died about 10 days later.

“The take-home message from this accident, and a lot of accidents, is to not get caught in a slide,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“Wearing beacons, knowing how to use them, and conducting an efficient rescue – all these things help, but they don’t guarantee your survival. What guarantees your survival is not getting caught in an avalanche.”

A similar report comes from the Canmore area of Alberta.The Banff Crag & Canyon reports that two men died from the injuries they received while being pulled through trees. Both men were believed experienced backcountry skiers, as they were equipped with avalanche transceivers and probes. That slope was 35 degrees.

In November, two other men were killed in the same area after stepping onto a cornice, which broke off, triggering an avalanche.


 


Vail founder still looking for gold

VAIL – For most of his life, Earl Eaton has been tromping up mountains, looking for a pot of gold. At age 85, he’s still looking.

It’s not that he hasn’t had success in his own way. Fifty years ago last March, Earl Eaton led Pete Seibert up what is now called Vail Mountain, to show Seibert the expanse of mostly treeless hillsides now called Vail’s Back Bowls.

This was before Interstate 70 was even authorized westward from Denver. While Seibert had trained nearby at Camp Hale, he had never seen those bowls. But the sight of them clinched his decision that this was the place to realize his boyhood dream of creating a big ski area.

Eaton grew up on a ranch about 10 miles west, during a time when the Eagle Valley was a hardscrabble place of mostly too-long winters for decent farming or ranching. Some people worked on the railroad or at the mines.

Things had changed little after World War II, when Eaton and Seibert were both living in Aspen. They probably met at Aspen’s famous Red Onion. In time, he learned of Seibert’s life-long quest to someday build his own ski resort. Later, when Seibert was managing Loveland Basin, Eaton confided to Seibert that he might have Seibert’s answer.

Seibert died several years ago of cancer, but Eaton, while diagnosed earlier this year with cancer, has been getting treatment and hopes to get back onto Vail Mountain yet this winter on his ski bike. During day-time operations, he’s the only person allowed to bike on Vail Mountain.

At one time in the late ’60s, he thought he was going to make a fortune with the next big thing, snow bikes. Big in Europe, they never caught in the states. Before that, he’d been a uranium prospector. Still on Eaton’s to-do list, says his son, Carl, is to get back into the mountains around Eagle, where he lives, to look for the gold ore that Carl says his uncle found many years ago.


 


Vail coughs up affordable housing

VAIL – Vail town and ski company officials have played poker until the last minute, more or less. But they now have an agreement, after a fashion, about the terms by which Vail Resorts will come up with affordable housing as required by the town before a major new real estate development is opened.

The project is called Arrabelle, an Old World-type edifice with 66 condos, 33 hotel rooms, plus Starbucks, Patagonia and all the rest. An ice-skating rink is in the middle. Two years in construction, it is to open Jan. 5.

Since summer, town and ski officials have crankily disagreed with over how Vail Resorts can meet its obligations to provide 120 employee-housing units. The town preferred on-site, but Vail Resorts is wrangling for a location across I-70. Most of the negotiations have been occurring behind closed doors, which town officials insist is within the law. For now, Vail Resorts will post a $17.3 million letter of credit – and has agreed to come up with a plan by late February. If it doesn’t, the town can cash the check.

There has also been crankiness in Jackson Hole, where Vail Resorts is on the hook for 22 affordable housing units resulting from a project approved in 2005.

The company was granted a six-month extension in early summer, but still has produced none of the goods. One commissioner, reports theJackson Hole News&Guide even asked the county attorney to look into civil proceedings.

What seems to have happened is that Vail Resorts has contracted with a Colorado-based developer, David O’Neil, to build the 22 homes. He comes with a reputation for building higher quality affordable housing than is sometimes the case. One reason for the delay is the need for review from the National Park Service, as the development is near the border of Grand Teton National Park


Breck cleans up mine waste

SUMMIT COUNTY – Breckenridge continues to reconfigure its landscape, softening the hard edges of its mining heritage. That heritage included the churning of vast piles of gravel in rivers and creeks by steam-powered dredges, yielding minute quantities of gold. In some cases, the rivers were dredged up to 50 feet deep, down to bedrock.

Although the dredge mining ended in 1942, vast piles of rock remained piled high in the Blue River at the town’s entrance well into the 1980s. Some piles remain even now in the Blue, as well as its chief tributaries, French Creek and the Swan River.

That is changing.The Summit Daily News reports that the piles of rock have been removed from the Swan, one truckload at a time, for use elsewhere as fill material below houses. In exchange, topsoil is being provided for the river restoration. As well, a small portion of the old dredging operation has been restored, as a sort of outdoor museum.

Another segment of the river restoration is being launched, explained Brian Lorch, Summit County’s open space and trail director. Within a few years, he hopes to see trout once again hiding in the waters of the river.


Tahoe students ski for credit

TRUCKEE, Calif. – The West has many high-priced private ski academies where students study half the day and train for ski racing the other half. Vail has a new ski academy, which was profiled on National Public Radio, as does Crested Butte.

But what may be a unique program exists in the Tahoe-Truckee area of California. There, students enrolled in North Tahoe High School can take four classes in the morning. In the afternoon they train on the slopes. Students achieve the balance of the curriculum through independent study programs offered by Coldstream Alternative High School. Among the offerings are advanced-placement courses.

Students enrolled in the program must maintain a 2.8 grade-point average, reports theSierra Sun, a higher average than usually required by traditional high school sports.

Although the program is new, school officials tell the newspaper there are no problems.

The Sun notes several other ski academies in the area. At one, Sugar Bowl Ski Academy, college-prep classes are taught for grades 7 through 12. Cost is up to $30,000 for those who room there, although less for local students. The public school program is free to any student who qualifies for California public schools.


Aspen recounts snowless winters

ASPEN – The lack of snow during November this year caused some apprehension – and some looks back into history. In Colorado, autumn-like weather has lingered into January in some memorable years, reportsThe Aspen Times. For example, Independence Pass was open to motorists until Jan. 20 during one winter immediately prior to World War II. Normally, it closes in November due to snow. But even in the mid-1960s, there was a winter when it didn’t snow until mid-January.

— Allen Best

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