The U.S. Forest Service closes backcountry areas for floods and wildfires, but the danger posed by avalanches, such as the one that killed Tony Seibert, a grandson of Vail's co-founder, doesn't trigger more than a temporary closure.
Seibert was the eighth person since 1986 to die in avalanches at or near the East Vail Chutes site where a wall of snow collapsed late Tuesday morning, burying him. The three friends he was with survived.
"In the backcountry, we recognize the wildness of these areas and a lot of people love and cherish them for fairly wild recreation activities, so we look for a balance," said Jim Bedwell, Forest Service director of recreation lands for the Rocky Mountain region.
Seibert, 24, and his friends, two men and a woman, entered the area from a backcountry gate at the Vail ski area and were outside the resort's boundaries when the wall of snow collapsed. Seibert's companions were rescued and treated for minor injuries.
Access points from ski resorts to wilderness areas include warnings about potential hazards and reminders of the need for safety equipment such as avalanche transceivers, Bedwell said. "We tend to focus on information and awareness to backcountry skiers and boarders so they have the best information."
Posted warnings also tell users they are responsible for their own safety, he said.
The Forest Service works with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to provide information on dangers to skiers.
While the Forest Service always considers public safety in making decisions, Bedwell said, it is too early to speculate whether it will close the area. "You would be amazed at how quickly people come out of the woodwork (to object to restricted access to wilderness)," he said. "This is their public area."
Seibert was a noted free-style skier who appeared in Warren Miller Entertainment films, including "Climb to Glory," a tribute to the fabled 10th Mountain Division ski troopers. His grandfather, Vail co-founder Peter Seibert, served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.
"It often happens that it is the expert users that get into this situation," Bedwell said.
Since 1950, avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard has, and in the U.S, Colorado accounts for a third of all avalanche deaths, according to the CAIC.
Five people have died in avalanches in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana over the past two weeks.
The area of the fatal East Vail slide was closed Wednesday as a CAIC team investigated its cause and size. The agency's report should be out within the next week.
Avalanches are rated on a scale from one to five, with one being the least dangerous, CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar said.
He believes the slide that killed Seibert was about a three. "A two can injure or kill. A three can destroy a small wood-frame house," Lazar said.
Last year, Colorado's mountains didn't experience until March the kind of large slab avalanche that killed Seibert, Lazar said.
Early snow played a part in Tuesday's slide.
This year, the first snow hit the Vail area in October, said Joe Ramey, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. "Then we went through a period in November where we didn't have any snow."
Had snowfall been steady during that period — even if the accumulation was small — the likelihood that layers of snowpack would have weakened enough to produce the instability would have been less, Lazar said.
"Weak layers develop during the break between storms," he said. Sometimes, the layers are weakened near crusts that form when snow freezes then thaws, but other conditions can also lead to unstable conditions.
When more snow piles on top of those layers, it can produce deep persistent slabs such as the one that collapsed on Seibert.
"When you have strong snow sitting over weak snow, that is a bad structure," Lazar said.
Tom McGhee: 303-954-1671, email@example.com or twitter.com/dpmcghee