Two even carried avalanche airbag backpacks. They saw signs of avalanches on the slopes above the groomed Piney Lake Road as they throttled their machines up toward Red and White Mountain. They spent time in low-angle powder fields along the road, but stuck with their plan to avoid steeper slopes.
The trio’s snowbikes were nimble. The lightweight, high-powered dirt bikes equipped with a long track, like a snowmobile, enable riders to more easily access steep slopes and drainages that snowmobiles typically don’t reach.
Two of the riders, Gypsum locals Dillon Block and Cesar “Pollo” Almanaza-Hernandez, piloted their machines up an unnamed, unfamiliar forested drainage where they found themselves beneath a steeper slope.
While they were turning to retreat, an avalanche swept them into a gully. They were buried very deep in the debris, making swift rescue by their third partner, who was only partially buried in the slide, impossible. The triggers for their avalanche airbags were zippered closed and inaccessible, according to an analysis of the avalanche by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Avalanche danger for the region around Vail was rated as moderate on Feb. 15. It was a few days after a weeklong storm cycle that hammered the Vail ski area with 46 inches of snow. Moderate is the second of five levels on the North American avalanche danger scale, which warns that natural avalanches are unlikely but human-triggered slides are possible.
Avalanche forecasters have tinkered with the moderate description, hoping to warn backcountry travelers that while there may be a low probability of avalanches, there remains a high consequence in the event of a large, devastating slide. The forecasters at CAIC use the term “spooky moderate” to warn travelers of a high probability of small-to-large avalanches but only on specific slopes. The researchers who studied the slide that killed Block and Almanza-Hernandez said the snowpack that day on the slope above the gully were “quite reflective of a spooky moderate avalanche hazard.”
In the past seven years, 32 people have died in avalanches in Colorado, 11 of them during periods where the avalanche hazard was ranked moderate. All four avalanche fatalities in Colorado this season have been during periods of moderate avalanche danger.
“The group spent the entire day playing in dense trees or on low-angle slopes, specifically avoiding avalanche slopes,” CAIC forecasters Kreston Rohrig and Ethan Greene wrote in their report on the fatal slide. “At the end of the day, they decided to enter an unfamiliar drainage and attempted to turn around and retreat when they saw the steeper slope. Maybe the only thing they could have done to avoid this situation is to use maps or a mobile phone app to look at the area before they left the road. Both the open nature of the slope and the slope angle over 30 degrees are apparent in satellite imagery and contour maps.”
The deaths of Block and Almanza-Hernandez above Vail on Presidents Day weekend mark the third and fourth avalanche fatalities involving snowbikes in Colorado since February 2016. The previous deaths, near Lost Lake on Cottonwood Pass in Chaffee County in 2016 and in the Flattops Wilderness Area in 2017, were some of the nation’s first avalanche accidents involving snowbikes.
Dirt bikes can be converted to snowbikes with a few hours of tinkering in a home garage. The conversions have become increasingly popular, with snowbike athletes competing in the Winter X Games in Aspen since 2017. They are challenging avalanche educators who have labored in recent years to reach snowmobilers with education and classes.
Since 2012, shortly after the death of his brother Tyler in an avalanche on Buffalo Pass, Brian Lundstedt has been teaching avalanche education classes specifically for snowmobilers. He now offers courses for snowbikers.
He travels the West offering his entry-level Tyler Backcountry Awareness classes and more intensive Avalanche Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 classes. They include the same curriculum for both snowmobilers and snowbikers, but the classes are taught separately because the two machines travel differently in snowy terrain.
“We really don’t have a different message other than, ‘Get educated. Get the gear. Get the knowledge and know before you go,” he said. “When I travel with snowbikers who are really good … we spend a lot of time riding in really dense forest where the angle can get really steep really quickly and it does not pose a lot of technical difficulty. But what we are seeing is that, while traveling in old-growth forests is not that concerning, they can easily pop out into little clearings or less-dense areas where avalanches can suddenly be big problems.”
And since many snowbikers are coming from a dirt-biking background where they might not be familiar with avalanche hazards – unlike snowmobilers – there is more of a need to educate the new winter travelers on group decision-making and identifying dangerous terrain, Lundstedt said.
“We get a lot of people who are very proficient bike riders who may not have a lot of exposure to winter in the mountains,” said Lundstedt, who offers two Level 1 classes for snowbikers every year.
The motorized community is prepared for these newcomers. In recent years, snowmobile groups have banded together to create motorized-specific avalanche education and even traditional avalanche schools that have long focused on human-powered travel are adopting motorized programs.
“We are drawing more snowbikers into our training now,” said Scott Jones, president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, a 20-year-old coalition of 37 clubs around the state. “Snowbikes fit in the back of a truck. You don’t need a sled deck or a trailer. And I am seeing them in less-developed trailheads. I think it’s just going to grow. It’s another example of the hybridization of everything. We see skiers on sleds and electric bikes in the backcountry now. The traditional barriers are falling, and for good reason. It’s just people wanting to get outside and have fun, right?”
Rohrig, with CAIC, said they are not seeing a rise in incidents involving snowbikes, but the machines are still relatively new.
“No doubt they are on people’s radar,” he said, “so I guess we’ll see if they diverge from the normal motorized crowd as being riskier.”