With deeper snow, a steep fall line, cliff bands, and easy access, the East Vail Chutes, where an avalanche yesterday killed a Vail skier and injured three others, are alluring backcountry terrain. But those same factors also make the East Vail Chutes ripe for instability and prone to human-triggered avalanche incidents.
Tony Seibert, 24, the grandson of the founder of Vail, died in an avalanche there on Tuesday morning around 11:30 a.m. It was the fifth avalanche-related fatality in the United States this season and the second in Colorado.
A storm the previous weekend had brought over a foot of snow to Vail, and strong winds followed from the west, loading slopes with eastern exposure. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) reported highly unstable conditions, with whoomping above treeline and evidence of slides on slopes 30 degrees or steeper. On Tuesday, the CAIC rated the snowpack as Considerable—defined as “dangerous avalanche conditions. Cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making essential.”
Brian Lazar, deputy director and forecaster for the CAIC, says preliminary estimates put Tuesday's avalanche close to a D3 rating, which means it was large enough to bury a vehicle and take down some trees.
"For Colorado, in the last week and a half, we are seeing some of the biggest avalanches we've seen all season," says Lazar. "Some have run naturally just from the wind loading, and then of course, some have been triggered."
Lazar noted a persistent weak layer that is most pronounced in the snowpack in Vail and Summit counties and in the Front Range. With new storms, the weak layer is getting deeper, which means slides are becoming harder to trigger. However, when released, they are more destructive.
Gabe Schroder, a former Vail resident who skied the East Vail Chutes frequently when he lived there and knows the terrain well, says the approach is about a 20-minute bootpack from the top of the lifts in the back bowls of Vail.
"If you get it on the right day, you're skiing deep powder to huge cliff drops," Schroder says. "It's some of the best skiing around, no doubt."
But it is serious backcountry terrain, says Schroder.
"The wind loading in this zone is just massive," he continued, noting that when Vail reports a couple of inches, the East Vail Chutes often see a foot. "It's a huge snow mitt, it just catches everything."
The CAIC will be updating their website as more information about the circumstances surrounding Seibert's death become available. Seibert recently filmed with Warren Miller in Climb to Glory, a film about the 10th Mountain Division Ski Troopers, in which Seibert's grandfather served.
Here at POWDER, we extend our sincere condolences to the community of Vail and to Seibert's friends and family for their loss.