Snowboarders escaped monster avalanche, but not the law

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A sign warns backcountry users about avalanche blasting near the Continental Divide near Vail, Colo., Monday, March 22, 2021. Evan Hannibal, of Vail, and Tyler DeWitt, of Silverthorne, were involved in an avalanche in the area last spring that buried a service road and destroyed an expensive avalanche mitigation system. The two are scheduled to go to trial Thursday, March 25, 2021, on charges of misdemeanor reckless endangerment. Prosecutors also are seeking $168,000 in damages in the rare case that some worry could deter other backcountry skiers and snowboarders from coming forward to report avalanches out of fear of costly retribution. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

DENVER – Tyler DeWitt and Evan Hannibal were slowly making their way down a windswept slope during a backcountry snowboarding excursion in Colorado last spring when the shallow snow beneath them shifted and broke loose.

“Avalanche!” shouted DeWitt.

Hannibal’s helmet cam captured the moment and the tense, profanity-laced exchange that followed as a wall of snow wider than a football field barreled downhill near the Continental Divide.

The experienced backcountry snowboarders weren’t injured, but the avalanche buried a service road in about 20 feet (6 meters) of snow and came dangerously close to Interstate 70, a major route for ski traffic. As soon as they were safe, the two men called 911 to report the slide and spent two hours at the scene — an area popular with backcountry users — describing what happened. They shared the video and offered to send photos. They thanked investigators for showing up. Hannibal described the interaction as cordial.

Weeks later, the snowboarders were stunned when they got word they were being charged with reckless endangerment.

DeWitt and Hannibal didn’t immediately realize the slide destroyed an expensive avalanche mitigation system.

Prosecutors also are seeking $168,000 in damages in a rare case some worry could deter other skiers and snowboarders from coming forward to report avalanches out of fear of costly retribution. Backcountry enthusiasts and avalanche prevention specialists will be closely watching the trial, which was set to begin Thursday but was rescheduled because not enough jurors could be seated.

Hannibal, 26, of Vail, said in an interview with The Associated Press that several people have already told him they are reporting avalanches anonymously to avoid getting slapped with charges.