Colorado Snowboarders Triggered An Avalanche And Reported It. Now They Face Charges
Two snowboarders who triggered an avalanche in the backcountry of Colorado in March are facing criminal charges.
As the Colorado Sun reports, the boarders called in the avalanche and later provided helmet-camera footage to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. That footage is now being used to charge them with reckless endangerment. The slide didn't hurt anyone, but it did destroy an avalanche mitigation device and covered a road. Now, the two could face paying nearly $170,000 for damages.
Researchers and recreation lawyers like James Moss are angry about the charges and concerned this could make people wary of reporting avalanches in case they get charged. Moss even says now he couldn't, in good conscience, advise anyone to report one even if it could help further research.
"Right now, if anyone comes to me and says, 'Jim, I triggered an avalanche. What should I do?' You know my advice is going to be, 'Shut up. Don't say anything,'" he said.
Moss said there's still a lot to learn about avalanches, like when and where they're going to happen, so this chilling effect could cost lives.
Avalanche expert Dale Atkins agrees, and said his concerns go beyond just the people causing avalanches.
"By not calling for help early, it just complicates and worsens the situation," he said. "And that could result not only in additional harm to injured people, but also it increases the risk to the rescuers that eventually could be called upon to go help."
For those buried in an avalanche, he says their chance of survival is only 50/50 on a good day, and any delay can be fatal.
Beyond that, Atkins says accidents like this have cost lives before, but no one was charged. He thinks it's a bad idea for them to prosecute in this case, especially since he says the device they destroyed wasn't even in the right place.
"For these devices to be effective, they need to be up in starting zones and not in run-out zones," he said.
As a state agency, data gathered by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is considered public information. The center also works with law enforcement.
"There is no law against triggering an avalanche, but there are laws against causing damage to people and infrastructure," CAIC director Ethan Greene said.
While Greene is concerned about this dampening the free-flow of information between backcountry recreators and the center, he understands that actions have consequences. He says if someone stands above a road and purposefully causes an avalanche there, they could be held accountable.
However, Atkins said people skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry have to be flexible. Even if they don't plan on coming down a mountainside above a road or house, sometimes conditions force them to.
"There are times when you've started down a mountainside, and you're halfway down, and now you've come across some terrain that you didn't expect," he said. "So it's not surprising to come across a part of the mountain where you're going to have to deviate your plan, and your new direction may take you above a road."
All this comes at a time when more people are expected to hit the backcountry with mountain resort access limited during the pandemic.
Currently, no trial date is set for the two snowboarders.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.