Tyler DeWitt and Evan Hannibal were slowly making their way down a windswept slope during a backcountry snowboarding excursion on the Continental Divide 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 filled exchange that followed as the slide gained momentum while tumbling down the mountain.
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, they called 911 to report the slide and spent two hours telling investigators 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. Their trial is scheduled to begin Thursday and will be closely watched by backcountry enthusiasts and avalanche prevention specialists.
DeWitt and Hannibal didn’t immediately realize the slide destroyed an expensive avalanche mitigation system. In a rare decision, prosecutors pressed charges and are seeking $168,000 in damages in a case some worry could stop other backcountry skiers and snowboarders from coming forward to report avalanches out of fear of costly retribution.
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 criminal charges.
“We reported the avalanche because one it is the responsible thing to do, ” Hannibal said. “I never would have expected this to go to criminal charges because I didn’t feel as though there was anything, any criminal activity going on.”
Summit County District Attorney Heidi McCollum said doesn’t believe this case will affect whether people report avalanches.
“Whether or not the outcome of this case is a guilty verdict or is not guilty verdict is not going to have one ounce of bearing on whether or not an individual decides to report an avalanche if they know of it, if they see it, if they set it off,” McCollum said.
The March 25, 2019 slide, which was about 400 feet (122 meters) wide and ran about 1,200 vertical feet (366 vertical meters), destroyed one of six O’Bellx avalanche mitigation units in the area. The remotely operated devices, which are part of a statewide system controlled by the Colorado Department of Transportation, ignite a gas mixture of oxygen and hydrogen that causes an explosion aimed at safely triggering avalanches, which have killed 33 people across the country so far this winter, including 11 in Colorado.
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office is among those raising concerns about the message being sent by the criminal charges. The office filed a motion to quash testimony from the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center _ a state agency _ and one of its avalanche forecasters.
The motion, which was denied, argued the testimony could have an “unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact” on the avalanche center’s ability to collect photographs and videos from people involved in backcountry accidents because they fear the information could be used against them.
Investigators cited Hannibal’s video in an affidavit explaining the misdemeanor charge, which carries a penalty of up to 364 days in jail but will most likely result in probation and community service.
Summit County sheriff’s deputy Brian Metzger wrote that he had obtained an incident report from the avalanche center, as well as a copy of the video from Hannibal’s helmet camera.
Hannibal insists he and DeWitt did everything they could to navigate the terrain as safely as possible, and he said he never thought the information given to investigators would be used against them.
Denver attorney Jason Flores-Wiliams, an avid backcountry skier who is representing DeWitt and Hannibal, said the case raises questions about a state agency acting on behalf of law enforcement, as well as issues involving excessive fines. But he stressed that he is defending DeWitt and Hannibal because a guilty verdict would set a dangerous precedent.
“It just has deleterious effects throughout,” Flores-Williams said. “Less people will report avalanches because they say, hey, if you report this avalanche, next thing you know, the Summit County prosecutor could be coming after you. So it has an absolute chilling effect.”
Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center who helped write the incident report, said the avalanche center gave the report and helmet cam footage to investigators because, as a state agency, it is subject to the Colorado Open Records Act.
Greene hopes the criminal case doesn’t deter people from reporting slides to the agency, which uses the information to compile daily backcountry avalanche forecasts during the winter and to warn of possibly dangerous conditions.
“Sharing information is a really important part of backcountry recreation. We certainly don’t try to do anything but encourage that,” Greene said.