Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Officials urge caution in backcountry

Snowboarder David Hattula in stable condition after avalanche


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

    Following the rescue of a snowboarder injured in an out-of-bounds avalanche last week, snow-safety officials are recommending that people stay off the Bald Mountain sidecountry until conditions stabilize.
    Calling the current out-of-bounds snow conditions “bricks on chips,” Sun Valley Ski Patrol Superintendent Bryant Dunn said recent storms have loaded about 3 feet of fresh snow on top of a sugar-snow base created by two months of mostly clear weather.
    “It is a time now, more than usual, to pay attention to where you’re traveling in the backcountry,” Dunn said. “People who do a lot of backcountry skiing and are knowledgeable about it, the hair on the backs of their necks is up in a significant way right now. I expect it to be that way for the foreseeable future.”
    On Tuesday, the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center reported that new snow and high winds Monday night added new loads to a snowpack already stressed from last week’s storms. The center rated the avalanche hazard in the Smoky and Sawtooth mountains as “high” at upper elevations, meaning that natural avalanches are likely and human-triggered avalanches are very likely, and “considerable” at mid elevations, meaning that natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered avalanches are likely.
    Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said virtually all the backside skiing off Baldy is on slopes steep enough to slide.
    “There aren’t any conservative routes there,” he said.
    The injured snowboarder, David J. Hattula, 50, a member of the Bellevue City Council, was reported in stable condition at St. Alphonsus hospital in Boise on Tuesday, recuperating from injuries that he sustained in an avalanche on Feb. 13. The hospital provided no further information on Hattula’s injuries, but a news release from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office stated Thursday that he had suffered facial lacerations and possible femur, cervical, pelvic and clavicle injuries.
    “If people had seen what I saw yesterday, they’d understand the ramifications [of taking risks],” Dunn said the day after the incident. “Trees don’t move.”
    According to the news release, Hattula was found in a tree well in the Double Ott Chutes, off International run on the Warm Springs side of Baldy. The avalanche, one of several that were active in that area during the rescue, was believed to have been set off when Hattula was snowboarding alone out of bounds.
    Sun Valley Ski Patrol located Hattula after he made a call from his cell phone, and transported him by rescue toboggan to the upper Greyhawk parking lot where he was taken by ambulance to the St. Luke’s Wood River emergency room.
     “Given the seriousness of the avalanche conditions, we were extremely fortunate to have a successful outcome,” Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey said. “It was a very dangerous situation for our first responders.”

    Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said 911 calls to Blaine County dispatch normally provide GPS data on direction and approximate position, but Hattula’s call was transmitted via a temporary server set up near the Warm Springs base area at Baldy after a fire destroyed the permanent facility near the top of the Flying Squirrel chairlift. Elle said Hattula was able to direct responders to his location.
    “Had it been a week earlier, there wouldn’t have been any cell service at all,” Elle said.
    Nelson acknowledged that the lack of snow this winter has created a “siren’s song” for skiers and boarders now that the snow has finally arrived. However, he and Dunn said people need to control their urge to seek out fresh tracks.
    Dunn said the Sun Valley Ski Patrol has worked hard to open as much terrain on Baldy as possible.
    “The inbounds skiing conditions right now are very safe,” he said.
    He said areas that remain closed are closed only for safety reasons. He said those include still-thin snow cover and difficult conditions for transporting toboggans in some places, snowcat and snowmobile traffic and wind effects. He pointed out that the reason for a closure may not be obvious from the top of a run.
    “Every breaking of a closure is a serious event,” he said.
    Dunn said people can unwittingly create dangerous conditions for Ski Patrol members doing avalanche-control work by setting off a slide above them. He also pointed out that tracks into closed areas made by skiers knowledgeable about avalanche-country travel can lure other skiers who don’t have the skills and safety equipment.
    “You’re potentially putting in sucker tracks,” he said.
    Dunn said the patrol welcomes questions from skiers and boarders about why certain areas are closed.
    Avalanche hazard information is posted on boards at the top of Baldy and Seattle Ridge, and can be found at www.sawtoothavalanche.com.
    According to avalanche.org, there have been 15 avalanche deaths in the United States this winter. Nine have occurred since the beginning of February—one in Idaho, two in Utah, four in Colorado and two in Oregon. Of those, five were skiers, three were snowmobilers and one was a snowshoer.
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com




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