SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – Two Colorado snowboarders facing jail time and restitution for a snow slide they triggered in March say they believe the incident warrants discussion — but it wasn’t a crime.

(credit: CBS)

“This is bigger than me and Tyler. This is a backcountry community issue and the fact of these cases really changes the precedent for the backcountry and how people recreate on our public lands — and I think that is something that needs to be brought to light,” said Evan Hannibal.

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Hannibal, 26, and Tyler DeWitt, 38, are both experienced backcountry riders. They say that when they went out on March 25 they never expected such a large avalanche to break in the location they chose — just above the west portal of the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel.

(credit: CBS)

According to a report compiled by Sgt. Watson Metzger, Hannibal and DeWitt told him the following:

Evan and Tyler were planning on skiing one of the chutes above the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel. They skinned up an adjacent slope to get to the top of the chute they planned to ski. When they got to the top of the chute, they observed a small cornice which had developed from a recent wind loading event. They decided to ski cut just above the cornice to test the slope for reactivity. They did not expect the slope to be very reactive. As they ski cut, a small 6-inch-deep slab broke and propagated across the chute. The slab then stepped down to the ground and a large avalanche was the result. Neither party believed any vehicle or people were below them when the avalanche was triggered. After the avalanche was triggered, they made their way down the avalanche debris to the bottom of the slope.”

GoPro video captured by Hannibal shows the moment the avalanche ripped.

“Avalanche!” DeWitt can be heard shouting.

Moments later, the video shows the run-out of the slide, plowing onto the service road just above the west portal of the tunnel.

(credit: CBS)

Both DeWitt and Hannibal believed the area, because it was above Interstate 70 and had avalanche mitigation technology in place, would be lower risk. They also checked the forecast for the day on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website, which showed conditions were moderate (level 2 out of 5).

“We had two cannons in the chute that we chose. I was solid that that thing was bomb proof,” said DeWitt.

The “cannons” DeWitt are referring to are part of the O’Bellx system, installed just over a year ago to help CDOT with avalanche mitigation along I-70. According to Metzger’s report, the avalanche the pair triggered destroyed an exploder for the O’Bellx system. The force of the slide ripped it from a mounting stand, and it was later found in avalanche debris.

DeWitt and Hannibal have been ordered to pay the state $168,000 in restitution for the damaged caused and the cleanup that followed. They are also facing a reckless endangerment charge.

“The crime charged is that they failed to appreciate that by their actions they risked serious bodily injury to other people. The charge of reckless endangerment can apply to all types of activities and in all places, it is dependent upon the circumstances of placing other people at risk of serious bodily entry,” said Summit County District Attorney Bruce Brown.

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Brown said the people they presented a risk to where the CDOT employees as well as motorist on and around I-70.

“The avalanche put avalanche debris on the road about 400 feet wide and over 20 feet deep,” said Ethan Greene, Director of the CAIC.

It was enough to bury a car, and Greene says it should remind people to carefully weigh all risks when choosing an area to ride.

“We’re fortunate that there’s lots of room in Colorado, so there’s lots of places to go. This particular slope, although it is National Forest Service land, and open to the public, an avalanche on it drains into critical infrastructure,” said Greene.

He also said the technology in place, while meant to mitigate slides, was not put in place for skiers.

“Avalanche control is a very general term. It’s what we do to reduce the impact of avalanches to whatever we care about,” Greene continued. “You do things very differently than you do if you’re at a ski area where you’re going to be sending families and kids and grandmothers down slopes, it’s heavily dependent on what you’re trying to protect.”

Hannibal agrees — and says he knew it wouldn’t fully prevent a slide from occurring. Still, he was surprised by the magnitude.

“I wouldn’t base my whole decision on the fact that they were blasting that area. You hope that it is done properly, that it is mitigated properly. They could’ve mitigated it and weren’t seeing any reactions, and we were just that straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s just a matter of force factors reaching that weak layer and we have to keep that in mind,” said Hannibal.

Hannibal said he’s received many messages from people who have told him they choose not to ski the area for that exact reason — the risk it poses to the road below. While Hannibal understands that now, he believes it’s not common knowledge.

“Hindsight is always 20/20 and looking back now that this has happened tells me that we need to go back to the drawing board and be a little more diligent next time because miscalculations can be lethal in the backcountry,” he said.

Both will be back in court at the end of October to argue their cases.

To read the full report from the March 25 avalanche, or to learn more about the CAIC, click here.

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Jamie Leary