A skier who was caught in an avalanche in Highland Bowl Friday morning but was uninjured said he regretted his decision to ski the steep, snow-loaded terrain and that he hopes his experience serves as a lesson to others.
Paul Noto, a local resident, water attorney and experienced backcountry skier, said he is extremely sorry for his decision to ski Highland Bowl Friday morning and that he was aware of the considerable avalanche danger following Thursday’s storm that dropped up to 16 inches of heavy spring snow.
He said he was the seventh or eighth person to ski in the G8 zone, in the gut of Highland Bowl, and that there were as many as 30 skiers accessing terrain in the bowl Friday morning.
“I want to say that I feel really sorry about my decision to be there,” Noto said. “I hope it serves as a message to others to be extremely careful, especially during this time. … There were many other people who were there and I am thinking that no one should have been in the bowl, clearly.”
Noto was the last to ski in his group. He estimated that the slide broke from a 1-foot-deep crown and that he was carried most of the way down the bowl, until the terrain angle becomes less steep. He fought successfully to stay above the snow and “there was a lot of luck involved.” When he came to a rest, he yelled to his two partners that he was OK, though he lost a ski. The group was able to ski the high traverse out of the bowl.
“I am feeling very contrite,” he said. “I am sorry for the first responders who were nearly deployed — it’s lucky they weren’t. I am sorry to the Aspen Skiing Co., which has had the graciousness and courage to allow uphilling when there could be a massive liability.”
Noto said he “let his guard down” in deciding to ski Highland Bowl.
“In hindsight, I made many of the classic mistakes,” he said, listing as factors familiarity with terrain, group dynamics and complacency as a result of skiing a lot this week. “I even had the conversation with another friend yesterday about whether to go. … I should have said no from the beginning.”
The slide was first reported at about 9:53 a.m. to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office by a skier who watched it happen from Aspen Mountain, according to sheriff’s deputy Chris Sulek. Though the reporting party saw ski tracks coming out of the slide zone, they also noted that some members of the party seemed to be canvassing the debris field.
As the sheriff’s office and Mountain Rescue Aspen team members were preparing to deploy into the field, Noto called in to report that no one was injured and that all members of the party were able to exit the bowl safely without rescue assistance.
The slide involving Noto was not the only skier-triggered avalanche on local ski areas Friday. According to Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle, two skiers were “fine” after triggering an avalanche in the Hanging Valley Wall section of Snowmass Ski Area. Another slide was also reported in the G2 section of Highland Bowl.
Mountain Rescue Aspen was on “high alert” Friday morning because of the likelihood of skier-triggered avalanches, Sulek said, due to heavy spring snow that fell on Thursday and the rapidly warming temperatures Friday morning.
The Pitkin Alert public safety message system sent out a warning Thursday afternoon about developing dangerous avalanche conditions, advising backcountry users to limit risk while reminding that ski area terrain should be treated like the backcountry. There has been no avalanche mitigation on ski areas since March 14, the day before the resorts were ordered closed on account of the growing COVID-19 epidemic in Colorado.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center rated avalanche danger as “considerable” on Friday. The day before, CAIC advised skiers to stick to low-angle slopes of 30 degrees or less. Highland Bowl has some of the steepest in-bounds terrain across any of the four area resorts.
“A spring storm has created dangerous avalanche conditions which will linger through Friday,” says the forecast discussion posted Thursday afternoon. “The danger is greatest in areas which picked up more than about 8 inches of new snow. Strong southwest to west winds have built fresh easy-to-trigger slabs on north through east to southeast-facing slopes near and above treeline. The drifted snow rests on slippery old-snow surfaces. A slab avalanche may break wide or wrap around terrain features. Choose terrain cautiously, and avoid steep wind-loaded slopes. Wednesday, a skier was killed in an avalanche in a north-facing alpine couloir in the Gore Range.”
Aspen Skiing Co. has continued to allow uphill access on its ski areas during the COVID-19 closure as a way to help keep the community active during the stay-at-home order. Noto told the rescue personnel he was speaking with on the phone that he was hopeful the incident would not lead to a reevaluation of that policy, Sulek said.
Hanle, with the SkiCo, said that there are not any changes expected in uphill access policy as a result of Friday’s skier triggered avalanches but he implored the community to be safe and remember that ski-area terrain should be treated as if it were backcountry.
According to a press release about the incident released by the sheriff’s office Friday afternoon, MRA remains on high alert.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen strongly urge skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers venturing into the backcountry to exercise extreme caution with the current spring conditions. Extreme changes in temperature and new layers of snow throughout the spring cause unstable conditions that are ripe for avalanches.”