Two snowboarders who set off an avalanche in upstate Colorado in March are being prosecuted.
As reported by the Colorado Sun, the boarders reported the avalanche and later provided footage with helmet cameras to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. This footage is now being used to accuse her of reckless endangerment. The slide didn’t hurt anyone, but it destroyed an avalanche defense device and covered a street. Now the two could face nearly $ 170,000 in damages.
Researchers and recreational lawyers like James Moss are upset with the charges, fearful it may deter people from reporting avalanches if charged. Even now, Moss says he can’t in good conscience advise anyone to report one, even if it might help further research.
“If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Jim, I triggered an avalanche. What should I do?’ You know my advice will be, ‘Shut up. Don’t say anything, ‘”he said.
Moss said there is still a lot to learn about avalanches, such as when and where they will happen, so this deterrent effect could cost lives.
Avalanche expert Dale Atkins agrees, saying his concerns extend beyond the people who cause avalanches.
“If you don’t call for help early on, it complicates and worsens the situation,” he said. “And that could not only cause additional damage to the injured, but also increase the risk for the rescuers, who might eventually be called for 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.
Additionally, Atkins says accidents like this one have previously cost lives, but no one has been charged. He thinks it’s a bad idea to bring charges 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 must be in launch zones, not run-off zones,” he said.
As a government agency, the data collected 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 damage to people and infrastructure,” said CAIC director Ethan Greene.
Greene is concerned that this will dampen the free flow of information between those seeking relaxation in the backcountry and the center, but he understands that action has consequences. He says that if someone stands over a street and deliberately causes an avalanche there, they could be held accountable.
However, Atkins said that people who ski and snowboard in the backcountry need to be flexible. Even if they don’t plan to go down a mountainside over a road or house, sometimes circumstances force them to do so.
“There are times when you’ve come down a mountainside and you’re halfway there and now you’ve come across terrain that you weren’t expecting,” he said. “So it’s not surprising to come across a part of the mountain where you have to deviate from your plan and your new direction may lead you over a road.”
All of this comes at a time when more people are expected to reach the hinterland, with access to mountain resorts being restricted during the pandemic.
There is currently no trial date 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 the support of affiliated stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.