Mt. Crested Butte avalanche fence passes its first real test

$1 million fence pays off

During the early January snowstorm, the plow-truck drivers in Mt. Crested Butte weren’t the only ones trying to keep the roads clear. The avalanche fence along Sunlight Ridge prevented a snow-slide from hurtling downhill across Outrun Road and into several condos.




On Tuesday, January 8, Mt. Crested Butte town manager Joe Fitzpatrick documented snow-slide activity on Sunlight Ridge, but says he believes the slide occurred one or two days before, when heavy snow hampered visibility.
“There were two different areas that slid, down to the south off of the rock ridge, and the clump of aspen trees all the way to the north,” Fitzpatrick says. “It all occurred in areas we expected it to occur.”
Fitzpatrick says the slide could have been categorized as an R-2 High Hazard snow-slide, explaining, “It’s not enough to damage a building but it could have buried a person.”
The avalanche fence is nearly three meters tall, and Fitzpatrick said, “There were sections where the snow was almost to the top.”
However, he says the snow activity shouldn’t be considered a true avalanche. “The fence is designed to hold the snow, not really stop a full-on avalanche… The fence was there and it prevented this slide,” Fitzpatrick says.
The 1,500-foot-long galvanized steel fence at the avalanche start zone on Sunlight Ridge was completed in the fall of 2006 at a price tag of just over $1 million. But during the winter of 2006 –07 there was very little snow to test it out. In April 2007 the Town of Mt. Crested Butte adopted a revised avalanche map allowing development to proceed in areas formerly deemed too unsafe for building.
Buildings in the area have been affected by several slides in the past, including one avalanche in 1989 that claimed the life of a child.
Fitzpatrick says, “If that fence wasn’t there after that storm, we would have had problems with both Mountain Sunrise and Outrun (condo developments).” He says Outrun Road, driveways, sidewalks, and entryways could have been buried, and depending on its strength, the slide could have reached as far as Marcellina Lane.
Mt. Crested Butte Town Council member William Buck says although there was less than average snowfall last year, the completion of the fence couldn’t have been timed any better, with the major snows received so far this season. “Now we can have a sense that it’s a success, and it can save lives,” Buck says.
Crested Butte Condominium Management owner Donna Oros, who manages Mountain Sunrise and lives in one of the units, says it’s a great feeling knowing the avalanche fence is in place and doing its job. Although a concrete avalanche barrier was built to protect the Mountain Sunrise condominiums in 1996, Oros says, “The barrier was never tested… We at Mountain Sunrise still had a level of uncertainty doing things like walking up the driveway or sitting in the hot tub. I think that is resolved.”

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