Snowmobiles are in the backcountry in record numbers, prompting some to question whether the motorized vehicles should be better regulated. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
With a surge of snowmobiles in the backcountry this winter, some are wondering if the time has come to better regulate the motorized vehicles in the San Juan Mountains.
“It’s increasing significantly,” said Anthony Garcia, a San Juan National Forest biologist in Pagosa Springs. “I’ve been riding 25 years, and it’s been nowhere near the levels we’re seeing now, and it presents new challenges for management.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has closed or limited capacity at bars, restaurants and gyms, as well as all the other usual day-to-day activities, public lands across the West have seen increased visitation.
As a consequence, all the ensuing pressures on the landscape and impacts to the environment have come with it.
Public land agencies had hoped for a brief reprieve this winter to prepare for what some predict will be an even busier summer in 2021. But, as it turns out, winter is proving just as hectic.
One activity land management agencies are dealing with is an uptick in snowmobiles cruising through the backcountry, which has renewed calls among some to better regulate how and where the motorized vehicles can use the landscape.
“Now, for the most part, you can take a snowmobile anywhere you want,” said Hilary Eisen, Winter Wildlands Alliance policy director. “And every year you wait to make a plan, the harder it is to make that plan. It’s a big effort, but worth it.”
Tyler Albers, trails program manager for the San Juan National Forest’s Pagosa Ranger District, said it wasn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic that led to more people riding snowmobiles this year in the backcountry.
“From November until about now, we were the only location in the U.S. with sufficient snow for backcountry recreation,” he said.
Michael Kukuk, president of the Wolf Creek Trailblazers, Pagosa Springs’ snowmobile club, said he grew up riding in the area, and had never seen it as busy as it is this winter.
“Trying to find parking has been a nightmare, I’ve never seen it like that,” he said. “We’ve had numbers we’ve never seen down here.”More snowmobiles in the backcountry this year has resulted in more search and rescue operations, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Atop Wolf Creek Pass, Albers said parking has become a huge issue, as well as people camping at trailheads. And, he said there’s been an associated increase in search and rescue missions for snowmobiles caught in the backcountry.
About two weeks ago, for instance, a father and a son became stuck in the Fall Creek drainage, accessed from Wolf Creek Pass, and were forced to spend the night outside. Both were ultimately brought to safety and unharmed.
Also, Albers said because so many people are out snowmobiling, drivers are ending up on groomed ski trails. One particular area of conflict, he said, is on the groomed Nordic ski trails on Fall Creek Road.
“Snowmobiles are allowed there, but asked to respect the grooming efforts of the Nordic Club,” he said. “But the snowmobiles will go in there and disrespect it and tear it up.”
Indeed, Davey Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, said snowmobiles have been a major issue this year at his ski area.
Pitcher said snowmobile use has blown up on a 20,000-acre area atop Wolf Creek Pass, and increasingly, more people are riding within the bounds of his ski area, creating safety concerns.
Pitcher also called out concerns about the noise snowmobiles generate, as well as potential impacts to winter wildlife habitat, especially the threatened Canadian lynx.
“I don’t understand how this can be allowed to continue without some consideration to the environment,” Pitcher said.Aside from wilderness areas and some marked areas, snowmobiles mostly have free rein of public lands.
All snowmobiles on public lands must be registered with the state of Colorado, and that includes any motorized vehicles, like dirt bikes or utility-terrain vehicles, that are outfitted for winter travel.
The other big rule, Albers said, is that snowmobiles, or any mechanized use for that matter, are not allowed in wilderness areas. But, despite patrolling, it’s notoriously difficult to catch people out of bounds.
“We try to find areas of concern and patrol those areas,” Albers said.
Other than that, snowmobiles appear to have free rein around public lands.
President Richard Nixon in the 1970s issued an executive order requiring federal land management agencies to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts associated with the use of all motorized vehicles on public land.
But the effort, over the years, had its challenges. So in the early 2000s, the Forest Service announced a new rule to implement “travel management plans” for each district to analyze and regulate motorized use in the backcountry.
The new rule, however, left winter travel management plans as optional, and it wasn’t until 2015 that the Forest Service changed course, requiring all districts to have winter regulations for motorized vehicles.
The problem for many districts, Eisen said, is that a winter travel plan isn’t a top priority. And, there’s limited resources (staff and time) throughout the Forest Service to take on the project.
“Most places don’t have them yet,” she said.
Indeed, James Simino, the San Juan National Forest’s Columbine district ranger, said the district does not have such a plan.
“It’s on our radar but we haven’t made it a top priority as of late,” he said. “But with the increased use we’re seeing, we weren’t prepared for that last summer, and some of it is carrying over into winter.”
Jimbo Buickerood, with San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the Forest Service’s claims over the years that it doesn’t have time or staff to draft a plan are hollow. He said the issue is especially pressing because of the rapid development of more powerful and versatile snow machines.
“Unfortunately, the Forest Service has significantly lagged on the prioritization of winter travel management planning despite the reality that such an effort would benefit both our public,” he said. “The recreating public and winter outfitters deserve better than to wait in line for a winter travel planning process that will be of benefit to all concerned.”
The only Forest Service district that has a winter travel plan in Colorado is the White River National Forest. Attempts to reach the district were not successful, but Eisen said many of the conflicts among user groups have been abated.
“Having a winter travel plan has helped in that regard,” she said. “You know where you can go snowmobiling, and you know where you can ski. It brings certainty and you don’t have to worry.”
The Forest Service’s Garcia said a winter travel plan could also help close areas that are critical winter habitat for wildlife, such as elk and deer, which can become disturbed by motorized use and waste precious energy when fleeing.
The U.S. Forest Service is required to draft winter travel management plans to regulate snowmobile and other motorized travel, but many district have yet to implement such plans.
Those areas are not officially closed right now, Garcia said, but it’s highly discouraged to ride in those areas. All off-limit areas can be found on the San Juan National Forest Service’s website.
Wolf Creek Ski Area’s Pitcher added he has to conduct environmental studies for his ski area, and so too should manufacturers of snowmobiles that sell and market their product for use on public lands.
“The manufacturers are getting a free ride on public land,” Pitcher said. “And they should be held accountable and be required to do an environmental assessment of their impacts of their machines used exclusively on public land.”
Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, said the industry is not opposed to winter travel management plans, so long as all user groups are treated equally.
Klim said his association has been involved with several management plans throughout the West, and the group tries to support local snowmobile clubs and associations that know the region best.
“It makes for good neighbors,” he said.Wyett Holman of Durango plays around on his snowmobile Sunday on Molas Pass south of Silverton. Snowmobile advocate groups say closing areas to motorized use forces people into fewer areas, creating more issues.
The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association conducted a study recently that found snowmobile sales are up 19% from last year, representing the biggest growth in sales in 25 years.
About one-third of those sales were to people new to snowmobiling, the study found.
“We’re doing pretty well,” Klim said. “A lot of people are trying to get out. People have cabin fever.”
Scott Jones, executive director of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said conflicts among winter user groups have been longstanding, and efforts have been made over the years to expand parking or improve boundary signs.
Jones added it is a constant effort to get people using the backcountry – and not just snowmobilers – educated about best practices, avalanche safety, off-limit areas, and a host of other issues.
Jones said he, too, is not opposed to winter travel management plans, but said snowmobilers are concerned that such efforts could be used to kick them out of areas where they are now allowed.
“A lot of these folks aren’t tolerant of other uses, and that’s a problem,” he said. “There’s always been conflict in winter recreation, just ask a skier and snowboarder. Twenty years ago, everyone thought snowboarders were the end of the world.”Conflicts among winter user groups have been going on for years, but more people outdoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought those issues to the forefront.
Wolf Creek Trailblazers president Kukuk also said having more areas open to snowmobiles spreads the use, whereas closing areas forces more people into one area, exacerbating any associated impacts.
“It will make things worse,” he said.
The Forest Service’s Albers said a winter travel management plan, which is a public process, was supposed to get started for the San Juan National Forest about three years ago, but those efforts ultimately did not progress.
That might change, however.
“Just with the use coming to Southwest Colorado, it’s definitely something that needs to be looked at,” he said. “But we’re nowhere near making any changes right now.”
A final Colorado Avalanche Information Center report on the slide released Sunday provides details on the deadliest Colorado avalanche since 2013 capping a week where 15 backcountry travelers have died in slides across the U.S.
Communication challenges in a large group and a “terrain trap” were contributing factors in the deadliest avalanche in the state since 2013, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report on the massive slide that killed three men near Ophir Pass in the San Juans on Feb. 1.
A skier who was buried but survived the avalanche on South Lookout Peak near Silverton that killed three of his friends described the torrent of snow that engulfed him like “a river.”
The report described the challenge of moving a large group — this one was seven skiers — through avalanche terrain as well as how “small communication errors and misunderstandings can be amplified in large groups.”
The report comes after the deadliest week for avalanches in the United States in more than a century. Counting this South Lookout Mountain tragedy and a slide in Utah’s Millcreek Canyon on Saturday that killed four, 15 people have died in avalanches in the country in the last seven days.
Three men — Adam Palmer, Seth Bossung and Andy Jessen — were buried and killed in the avalanche. They were among a group of Eagle County locals visiting the Opus Hut. The crew had been skiing in the backcountry around Red Mountain Pass and skied out of Silverton Mountain’s helicopter on Sunday. They skied into the Opus Hut around 1 p.m. on Monday and spent about an hour at the remote cabin before venturing out for an afternoon tour.
Some of the skiers, like Palmer, had been part of the annual trip to Opus for many years. Others, like Jessen, were new to the trip. All were friends from back home in Eagle. As they left the hut, the caretaker said there had been “lots of [avalanche] activity on all aspects and today is the warmest day since December,” according to the report by CAIC forecasters Spencer Logan, Jeff Davis, Rebecca Hodgetts and Mike Barney.
The crew climbed a short stretch and skied a southwest-facing slope into the drainage between Ophir Pass road — which is closed in winter — and The Nose, a descent on the skier’s left of South Lookout Peak. They climbed to a ridge toward the top of the The Nose and stopped at a saddle around 11,800 feet. They decided to ski a sparsely treed slope and skied one at a time with a plan to regroup on a small knob just above a steep-walled gully at the bottom of the peak’s face.
“Before the entire group collected on the knob, the first skiers to arrive began skiing down the rest of the slope and into the gully,” reads the report.
Palmer, Jessen, Bossup and the unnamed fourth man descended the gully, which the report describes as a “terrain trap.” One of them stopped on the right wall of the gully and the fourth skier yelled for him to avoid the steep section of the gully on the right side. All four men were moving down the gully when the avalanche released around 3:20 p.m.
The report says the avalanche came in two waves. The fourth skier was able to pull his avalanche airbag when the first wall of snow released and he was standing in the bottom of the gully when a second wave hit him from behind.
“He was engulfed in snow and tumbled violently,” the report says.
The remaining three skiers were able to find the fourth man, whose airbag was visible above the debris. Palmer, Jessen and Bossung, however, were completely buried.
The four skiers sent an SOS signal on an InReach device around 4:40 p.m. and they were able to detect signals from their friend’s avalanche transceivers. But the closest signals they could detect on their transceivers were between 4 and 5 meters, or about 13 to 16 feet. (For transceiver searching, the digging begins at the lowest reading, which is the closest point to the buried skier.) The four men dug for two hours.
Inside the holes, the signals from the transceivers showed their friends still 5-to-6 feet below. They were able to touch one of their friends with a probe pole from within one hole.
At nightfall, the four men were exhausted and made the “difficult decision” to return to the hut, reads the report. They built snowshoes out of tree branches for the fourth skier who lost his skis in the slide. Around 7:30 p.m. they made contact with San Juan County Search and Rescue members who had organized around 5 p.m. after getting the group’s distress call. The rescuers brought the four men back to the trailhead and suspended search operations until the following morning.
Searchers recovered two of the men on Tuesday as the Helitrax helicopter operation dropped explosives onto adjacent slopes, triggering several large avalanches. The search team of more than 30 people returned on Wednesday and recovered the third skier. One of the men was buried 9 feet deep. Another was at 11 feet. And the third was buried 20 feet deep in the gully.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides comments on all its fatal accident reports, hoping that insight into the events leading up to the avalanche can help other backcountry travelers avoid getting caught in a slide.
Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, describes his reports as akin to a newspaper. There are the news reports and the editorial section. In this avalanche, the forecasters highlighted the difficulty in communicating with a large group. Four of the skiers began their descent of the gully before the rest of the skiers arrived at the knob.
“Yet Rider 1 started down the gully before the rest of the group arrived,” the report says. “He was quickly followed by Riders 2, 3 and 4. There were suddenly four riders in the gully, all out of sight of the people on the knob when the avalanche released.”
“Gullies are bad places to be,” Greene said in an interview Sunday. “A lot of guides and avalanche professionals just avoid them altogether.”
Greene said his staff can’t point to the communication breakdown as a cause for the accident “but it’s definitely something that came out of the discussion that staff had with the people in the group.”
Greene and his team have been working hard this season, which has seen eight people buried and killed in Colorado avalanches, with more winter to come.
A weak layer of snow buried deep in the snowpack is shedding slabs of new snow. As more snow falls, the stress on that weak layer grows and avalanches hazards rise.
This is not a normal year, Greene said, who estimates the increased avalanche danger this season is maybe a 1 in 10 occurrence. So, for a skier who has spent 20 years in the Colorado backcountry, this is likely the second time to see this level of widespread avalanche hazard.
“This is the year to keep things mellow,” Greene said. “This is frustrating for us. Obviously we are not doing enough, but we have been doing everything we normally do plus an incredible amount more. It’s hard to know how successful we are. Maybe if we were not doing what we are doing, things would be worse. But eight people dead by the first week of February — this is not a good place to be.”
Events Leading to the Avalanche
On Monday, February 1 a group of seven friends met in Silverton for a multi-day trip to a backcountry hut east of Ophir Pass. They ranged in age from mid 30s to mid 50s. Some had been backcountry skiing together for many years, while others were new additions to the group. Several of them had made annual trips into this hut for at least ten years. Four members of the group had been in the area since Friday skiing in the backcountry and with a local helicopter skiing operation. Three members of the group arrived Sunday evening.
The group left Silverton around 10:30 AM and drove to the winter closure of CR8 (Ophir Pass Rd). At the trailhead the group checked transceivers and discussed avalanche conditions. They left the trailhead around 11:30 AM. They identified the south-facing slopes above CR8 as a potential avalanche hazard and traveled one at a time below them to reduce their exposure. They arrived at the hut around 1:00 PM and spent about an hour there before heading out for an afternoon tour.
The group discussed assessing avalanche conditions on a terrain feature known as The Nose, which is between Crystal Lake and the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek. On previous trips they had skied this slope, but did not plan to ski it that afternoon. Before leaving the hut they talked with the hut keeper who said there had been “lots of [avalanche] activity on all aspects, and today is the warmest day since December.”
They left the hut and climbed a short distance before descending a southwest-facing slope into the drainage between CR8 and The Nose.They climbed a gentle ridge to the south heading towards The Nose.They reached a small saddle at about 11,800 feet, and decided to descend a northeast facing, sparsely treed slope. The group rode down one at a time and started to regroup on a knob just above a steep-walled gully at the bottom of the slope. Before the entire group collected on the knob, the first skiers to arrive began skiing down the rest of the slope, and into the gully towards the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek.
Rider 1 skied down from the knob and into the gully. Riders 2 and 3 followed the same path, skiing close to each other. While Rider 2 continued down the gully, Rider 3 stopped along the skier’s right wall. Rider 4 slid over the convex roll at the gully entrance to yell down, telling Rider 3 to move to the left side of the gully and avoid the steeper slopes on the right. All four were moving down the gully when the avalanche released at about 3:20 PM.
The avalanche caught Riders 1, 2, 3, and 4. Rider 4 described the avalanche as two waves. The first wave slowly pulled him into the gully, but he was able to stay on his feet. Thinking there was enough snow to bury him if he fell over, he deployed the avalanche airbag on his backpack. After the snow stopped he was standing in the gully. Seconds later a larger wave of snow hit him from behind. Rider 4 immediately lost his skis and poles. He was engulfed in snow and tumbled violently. “It felt like I was in a river and I was fully under the snow for approximately 15 to 25 seconds” Rider 4 explained, and was “moving very fast a significant way down the gully”. When the avalanche stopped, Rider 4 was buried in the debris with his head under the snow, but a portion of his airbag was visible on the surface (partially buried-critical). Riders 1, 2, and 3 were completely buried in the avalanche debris.
All of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate are tragic events. We do our best to describe each one to help the people involved and the community as a whole better understand factors that may have contributed to the outcome. We offer these comments in the hope that it will help people avoid future avalanche accidents.
Moving a large group through avalanche terrain one at a time requires considerable time and careful coordination. Small communication errors and misunderstandings can be amplified in large groups. This challenge may have played a role in this accident. Some of the party expected everyone to regroup on the knob above the gully, yet Rider 1 started down the gully before the rest of the group arrived. He was quickly followed by Riders 2, 3, and 4. There were suddenly four riders in the gully, all out of sight of the people on the knob when the avalanche released.
The avalanche caught the four riders in a narrow gully where debris piled up extremely deep. Rider 4’s position higher in the gully, staying more skier’s left, and his airbag likely all reduced his burial depth. The others were not as lucky, and were deeply buried. In a terrain trap like this gully, the depth of avalanche debris can vary dramatically over a very small distance.
Digging a person out of avalanche debris is by far the most time consuming portion of a rescue. Deep burials are very difficult for a small team to manage. The debris is almost always very hard. Equipment breaks, people tire quickly, and just managing the snow you are removing becomes a monumental task. The four riders worked for hours and only got through the top half of avalanche debris above the victims. Anyone who has dealt with avalanche debris over a few feet deep will tell you the digging gets more difficult and more complicated the deeper you go. Eventually it took an organized search and rescue group, with many people and power tools, two days to recover all three riders.
The group and search and rescue personnel both detected two transceiver signals in close proximity at one of the burial sites. This led them to believe that Riders 2 and 3 were buried very near each other. They eventually determined the signal came from a single avalanche transceiver that was over 10 years old. Over the last 10 years the standards for avalanche rescue transceivers have improved. Although not common, modern transceivers can sometimes recognize the signal from certain old transceivers as two signals, a primary and ghost signal. In this case the age of the skier’s rescue device did not play a significant role in the outcome of the accident. However, it is a good reminder to make sure you understand the performance of the equipment you and your partners are using. Most avalanche rescue organizations and transceiver manufacturers recommend retiring devices that are more than 10 years old.
One of the victims, Adam Palmer, was a newly elected Town of Eagle trustee. Andy Jessen co-founded Bonfire Brewing in Eagle. Seth Bossung managed projects for the county’s energy efficiency department.
Families and town leaders in Eagle struggled Wednesday to absorb the deaths of three prominent and well-loved community members to a backcountry avalanche in the San Juans, as looming snow and potential thunderstorms slowed recovery efforts.
“Eagle County Government and the Town of Eagle are joining the community in mourning the loss of three friends and leaders. While an official announcement has not yet been made by our partners in San Juan County, the families of Seth Bossung, Andy Jessen and Adam Palmer are allowing us to share their names so we can all openly acknowledge their deaths and grieve together,” the town and county governments said in a statement at midday Wednesday.
“The families are surrounded by loved ones, and we are asking everyone to respect their wishes as to when and how they wish to communicate with others. Our hearts are heavy with the loss of these three men,” the statement said.
Jessen in November celebrated the 10th anniversary of founding Eagle’s popular Bonfire Brewing. Palmer, who directed Eagle County’s Sustainable Communities program, in November was elected to Eagle’s Board of Trustees. Bossung managed projects for the county’s energy efficiency department. Palmer and Bossung each had two children.
“Their contributions through their work in local government and local businesses, as well as their personal passions and their impact on the friends and family members they leave behind, have helped shape the community in ways that will be forever lasting. Every single one of us in both of our organizations has learned by their examples, and we are grateful to be able to call them colleagues,” the statement said.
The four surviving skiers dug for their three friends, but could not uncover them by Monday night. Rescue teams from San Juan County Search and Rescue began their own digging efforts at sunrise Tuesday morning, but were not able to extricate the three men. They planned to return to rescue work Wednesday, but weather made plans uncertain.
A GoFundMe page for Amanda Jessen, who co-founded and ran Bonfire Brewing with her husband, Andy, asked for help paying expenses from the accident and supporting the family.
The added ravages of a year under COVID-19 are evident throughout the memorial pages. The Jessen page mentions how tough it has been to operate a brewery and restaurant with frequent coronavirus restrictions. The page for Palmer’s wife, Kalie, urges friends not to give up virus distancing guidelines while they mourn their loss. Bossung’s page asks that any “visits are masked, short, and on the front porch.”
San Juan rescue officials have not yet been able to return requests for more details on the recovery mission. Their work has been further hampered by the danger of more avalanches, and they have had to pause as the Helitrax helicopter skiing operation triggers safe slides to clear terrain for rescue.
The losses from the San Juan accident, the worst since five people were killed in an avalanche near Loveland Pass on April. 20, 2013, add to an already ominous avalanche season in Colorado; four skiers died in slides in December. Colorado’s snow season has developed dangerous slabs of packed snow underneath relatively shallow new layers, promoting the breakoff of slabs and deadly slides in numerous popular backcountry locations.
San Juan and other locations continued to warn backcountry travelers of potential slides this week.
It’s anybody’s guess why forecasters do this job. It could be the smell of powder, throwing 50 pound shots from the helicopter, watching hard slab failure release energy over several alpine basins at once, or maybe just the company you keep.
Whatever the reasons, you get hooked on the excitement and the challenges of the job. It requires a lot of field experience (series of non-fatal errors), collection of empirical evidence, listening to your inner voice (intuition), and distilling all of the variables to reduce uncertainties until you can finally make a decision that you can live with. There are many truths to be learned. It’s no big mystery; you pay attention and do your work because you don’t want to be a victim of your own bad planning. It helps to be comfortable in the world of uncertainties.
Funny, but today I was going through an early bio I wrote; this portion about my time at CSU at the Boar’s Nest NW of town, 1964:
“In the fall I settled into the routine of class room work and preparation for what, I didn’t know. One story I must mention is the intentional dog breeding caper where we kidnapped the SAE Fraternity’s mascot St. Bernard dog that summer and brought him to the Boars nest for breeding to a (mostly) German Shepard, who was in desperate heat. Despite a campus wide alert, the crime remained unsolved and in a couple of weeks, with the deed done we returned the exhausted frat dog under the cover of darkness, undetected. Out of that union came my companion for the next 14 years, Sam”
Sam, the handsome Bernard/Shepard above had his very own avalanche path named after him by Don Bachman, (Sam’s companion) during the INSTAAR-San Juan Project around Silverton, Colorado in the early 70’s. The hundreds of paths were being identified, studied, measured and named for a San Juan Avalanche Atlas. See additional San Juan Project story.
Hi Jerry… Noel Peterson told me that Sam the dog didn’t like him and would growl at him whenever he was around. Noel finally figured out that at some point Sam had been shot in the hip. Noel always smelled of gun powder from shooting avalanches and Sam associated the smell of powder with the pain from getting shot. At least that’s how I remember Noel’s story. We miss him. Peter