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Caution: Falling Snow Piles Overhead
Skiers on Pikes Peak face hidden man-made danger

click to enlarge John Gallagher tackles Pikes Peak. - DAVE SAUER
  • Dave Sauer
  • John Gallagher tackles Pikes Peak.

When the spring skiing season begins in Colorado, many skiers will be anxious to ski those steep couloirs and snowfields that were too risky during mid-winter. The risk of avalanche is more predictable, and the highway opening up for the season makes them much more accessible. But when enthusiasts of the sport venture onto Pikes Peak, they may encounter a deadly risk factor that is not presented by nature.

Last spring (May 1999), four experienced mountaineers set out to descend the Cog Couloir (also know as the Railroad Couloir) from the summit of Pikes Peak. All of them were employees of the renowned mountaineering shop, Mountain Chalet of Colorado Springs. John and Ched were seasoned telemark skiers and climbers. Aaron and Lou were snowboarders and guides for the Pikes Peak Alpine School where they led snow and ice climbing trips on the very terrain they were about to ride.

All wore helmets, avalanche beacons, and carried ice axes and shovels. Not only did they know how to use them, but they professionally trained others in the use of this equipment.

The Cog Couloir begins just a bit down the northeast ridge from the summit and descends into the "Y" Couloir, which begins from the summit itself and the parking lot there. It is about 45 degrees in steepness with maybe a 50-degree section.

The group's timing was perfect for Mother Nature. It was between 11 a.m. and noon when the snow had softened from the night's freeze but not so much that it was about to let loose. They began their run one at a time and then paused part of the way down where the Cog entered the "Y" Couloir. Fortunately they all regrouped at this point and no one was skiing when they heard the roar of debris coming down from above.

Instinctively they dove for what little cover they could find along the rocky sides of the couloir. Within seconds, huge chunks of snow, rock and ice came careening down. Ricocheting like giant pinballs off the walls of the couloirs, the falling debris sounded like cannonballs whistling by overhead, thundering when they struck. After a minute that felt more like an eternity, it all stopped and the group dared to stand up and look around.

Skiers and climbers try to avoid such exposure by planning their trips carefully around the temperature, the time of year, the time of day, recent wind and storm history and previous experiences with the route. But all is not certain and sometimes you have to duck and pray when the "heavy artillery" starts pounding around you. The group thought that this was such a time. Maybe a cornice let loose. Maybe freeze-thaw conditions loosened a boulder. Maybe another skier they hadn't seen set it off from above.

They cautiously prepared to finish skiing out into the "Y" Couloir when suddenly the roaring noise began again, just as before. Again they dove for cover and again chunks of hardened snow and ice the size of television sets went whizzing by. Lou began to vaguely remember some account of another group that had suffered a similar fate on the mountain. He began to recall a story about some snowplow driver actually pushing the snow from the doughnut shop's parking lot on the summit down the "Y" Couloir to tumble over 1,000 vertical feet upon whatever and whoever might be down there. Here they were at the junction of the Cog and the "Y" Couloirs, and it seemed a bit strange that the barrage was repeating itself. Could it be a snowplow? Could a driver actually be so thoughtless as to push it all down on them into the huge chasm known as the bottomless pit?

The third barrage convinced them all that this was not a natural occurrence. It came again after about the same length of time as before, with the same amount of debris from roughly the same source -- the top of the "Y" Couloir. Had they skied the "Y" Couloir, they'd be dead. Had they been just a bit farther down the Cog and into the "Y," they'd be dead. Thankfully, they had all been together just to the side of the main path where the pounding was not as great.

Cutting off the remainder of their descent, they exited across rock to get out of harm's way and climbed back up to the summit. As they moved away from the area, they heard several more slides roaring down the "Y" in similarly timed waves.

Upon reaching the top, employees of the doughnut shop confirmed that the plow had been at work and that the driver had driven off down the Pikes Peak Highway just five minutes before the skiers arrived to inquire about the incident. The group walked over to the top of the "Y" Couloir and there, right at the edge, was a huge snowbank. It was clear that as snow was added to the top, the excess would tumble down the northeast face of the America's favorite fourteener. The backslope of the snowbank was continuous with the top of the "Y" Couloir and it was essentially a pile of icy snow chunks that were just scraped up. Although it hadn't snowed recently, the plow had been clearing the thawing hardpack of the parking lot.

Bruce Hamilton, operator of the Pikes Peak Alpine School, became concerned for his customers' safety, not to mention anyone else on the mountain, when he heard about the affair. The four involved opted to let Bruce write a letter to inform the Pikes Peak road crew of the incident. Assuming it was just a one-time error of judgment on the part of a plow driver, Hamilton said he expected the cooperation of the road crew in exercising more care.

Almost a year later, I called the highway maintenance crew of Pikes Peak and spoke with Preston Kimler. He recalled the incident and the letter from Hamilton. When asked what has been changed as a result, he said that the snow bank has been moved back from the edge somewhat, but that there was really no other place to put the excess snow during times of heavy snowfall.

I asked if any signs were posted to warn skiers and climbers. Kimler answered that the highway's permit with the U.S. Forest Service only extends 150 feet on either side of the road. I took that to mean that they did not have the authority to post signs at the runout of the couloir where climbers would begin their ascent, but certainly they could post one at the top where skiers would start.

I asked Kimler how skiers and climbers would be able to find out when the plowing would occur so they could avoid it. He suggested that they call 719-385-PEAK (7325) and hit the appropriate button after listening to the menu to reach the highway crew.

And when I asked him if he was aware that the Pikes Peak Alpine School had a permit from the Forest Service to use that side of the mountain, he answered that he was not aware of what permits the school may have with the Forest Service.

Asking a lawyer with the Colorado Attorney General's office about liability if there were an injury or death resulting from the parking lot's snow removal actions, I got an interesting answer. The state and all city governments within the state have "sovereign immunity" which means you can't sue the state (or Colorado Springs which manages the Pikes Peak Highway) without the state's permission. The governor can waive this and allow a lawsuit to proceed -- Gov. Romer did, in a case where the state Highway Department rolled a boulder onto people in cars driving below. The lawsuit was successful and the victims' families won.

One can only guess at what the governor would do in the hypothetical case of a skier or climber being injured or killed by parking lot snow removal on Pikes Peak. And because the event would happen on Forest Service land, that would involve yet another complication.

If the Highway Department doesn't have a big liability problem here, perhaps they have a moral obligation to at least warn others they might endanger. During the months of April and May, there are dozens of people skiing all over the Peak. Most of them are customers of the Pikes Peak Highway and have paid $8 to $20 per vehicle to use it. While it's true that a fraction of those skiers attempt to ski the terrain below the parking lot, the school is bringing folks up there on a more routine basis. Let's face it, not everyone up there is just taking pictures and eating doughnuts.

If you are thinking about taking some runs anywhere on Pikes Peak, please be aware that it is not a ski area, there is no ski patrol, obstacles are certainly not marked, there is no avalanche control and trails are not groomed. Frequently the snow is so wind-packed or frozen so hard that your skis won't even make a mark in it. If you fall on this surface, you could take off like a bar of wet soap. Check the runout below you to see if you'll smash into rocks or trees below. Know where you're skiing. It's easy to get confused and start down a run only to find it ends in a cliff. You may want to climb an extreme run before you ski it.

As with any other backcountry destination, you should be aware of potential avalanche danger as well as carry the recommended equipment and know how to use it.

The road makes this mountain accessible to hoards of skiers and boarders who otherwise would not be there. As you can imagine, there have been many deaths and injuries over the years. Some of the victims were experienced and prepared. Don't be lulled into complacency by the party-like atmosphere that sometimes occurs on a beautiful May weekend.

And finally, if you think you're skilled enough to do something as steep and dangerous as the Cog or "Y" Couloirs and you think you have the mountain smiling on you that morning, watch out for the plowman.

Dave Sauer skis and writes for www.firstrax.com

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