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Mark McCarron ID'd as victim in Vail avalanche, anger over marijuana mention

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On Friday, we reported about the tragic death of a snowboarder in an avalanche near Vail Pass; see our original coverage below. The victim has now been identified as Mark McCarron, 38, of Westminster.

As part of its original release, the Eagle Police Department noted that McCarron and friends accompanying him had been smoking marijuana, and even noted the strain, Dead-Head OG. We questioned whether this information was relevant or appropriate -- and it turns out a lot of other people did, too.

On Thursday, as we reported, a group of three snowboarders are said to have accessed a backcountry area near the pass called North Ptarmigan Hill. Then, at around 1:30 p.m., an enormous avalanche was triggered; it's said to have been ten feet deep and 300 feet wide. The snowboarder with McCarron was able to escape the devastation, but McCarron was swept into a stand of trees and died as a result of his subsequent injuries.

The Eagle County Sheriff's Office subsequently provided an overview of this information, but also added this: "Detectives with the Eagle County Sheriff's Office were informed that the parties involved were under the influence of Dead-Head OG (a strain of marijuana) at the time of the incident."

In our post, we wondered if this mention was a way of implying that marijuana had somehow been the cause of the accident -- a highly dubious assertion, to put it mildly. Given that Amendment 64 allows adults 21 and over to use and possess small amounts of marijuana, we suggested that this information would only be worthy of note if the victims were underage -- and given that McCarron was in his late thirties, that possibility is off the table.

Comments soon piled up on the post, with one person identifying herself as the girlfriend of the snowmobiler who accompanied McCarron to the site. She noted that McCarron's friends and loved ones were "livid" about the reference to marijuana, and the way that some media organizations, including the Denver Post, played it. She added that McCarron and his companions are "backcountry professionals...trained in avalanche safety" who "performed proper protocol and found their friend within three minutes of the slide. They did everything they could to save their best friend.

"They were not under the influence either, but they did have MJ on them," she added. "It is deeply insulting to us that these articles are alluding that MJ caused the slide, when indeed, was a freak accident."

We're featuring this complete post in an upcoming Comment of the Day. But other comments reinforced the message. Here are some examples:

OK wait so smoking pot causes avalanches?

Totally irrelevant! I have been skiing backcountry avalanche prone mountains for over 25 years, and smoked weed before every single run, and I am still here...smokin and skiin.

90% of the snowboarders over age 18 are smoking pot, wow.

I've never known mj to cause natural disasters. Wow, they're desperate to make it look dangerous now.

They should have been reporting that his family, which includes an amazing wife and 2 beautiful daughters are crushed by the accident. This family is devastated that they lost their husband/best friend and father!

This last note makes an important point: The mention of marijuana has stolen attention from what is clearly an awful situation for everyone in McCarron's orbit. The focus should be on him rather than on a legal substance that appears to have played no role in what happened.

Our sincere condolences to McCarron's friends, family and loved ones.

Continue for our previous coverage of the avalanche, including photos. Original post, 6:13 a.m. April 19: How did the tragic avalanche death of a snowboarder get mired in marijuana politics? The answer has to do with information released by the Eagle County Sheriff's Office, which noted that the victim and his friends had been smoking marijuana -- specifically, Dead-Head OG.

Fortunately, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is sharing information that's focused on what's really important -- the tragedy itself -- as opposed to implying that the incident might not have happened without weed.

The CAIC's incident report features multiple photos of the avalanche site, on North Ptarmigan Hill, near Vail Pass. Here's an example. Like it, the photos that follow sport the original CAIC captions and credit info:

The CAIC has concluded that the snowboarders accidentally caused the slide, which took place within old snow. The technical term offered is "an unintentional release."

According to the report's author, forecaster Ethan Greene, a group of three snowboarders used snowmobiles to access the Vail Pass-area backcountry -- and two of them were caught up in the subsequent avalanche. "One was washed into a stand of trees, and was killed," Greene writes. "He likely died from his injuries."

His companion managed to ride out, avoiding most of the debris.

The U.S. Forest Service, as well as sheriff's office personnel and rescue groups from Eagle and Summit counties, responded to the accident site, which is vast. The "deep, persistent-slab avalanche" is estimated to have been ten feet deep and approximately 300 feet wide, snapping trees three to five inches in diameter.

Late yesterday, the Eagle County Sheriff's Office put out its own account of the incident. As quoted by the Aspen Times, it puts the slide time at around 1:30 p.m. and notes that snowboarders had been "making runs down the Avalanche Bowl all day" prior to the slide. Then, more controversially, the released added, "Detectives with the Eagle County Sheriff's Office were informed that the parties involved were under the influence of Dead-Head OG (a strain of marijuana) at the time of the incident."

The statement raises a number of issues. First of all, it's unclear why detectives are investigating the use of marijuana. If the snowboarders were 21 and over, they are legally allowed to possess up to an ounce of cannabis under Amendment 64, which was signed into law this past December. If they're under 21, that's another matter -- but the ages of those involved have yet to be released.

Should they be adults, however, the mention not only of marijuana, but the strain being smoked, feels pejorative. Consider: Would it have been noted that an avalanche victim had consumed a beer before dying? If so, would law enforcers have been compelled to mention its potency, or perhaps its brand? Can you imagine a release that reads "Detectives with the Eagle County Sheriff's Office were informed that the parties involved were under the influence of Pabst Blue Ribbon (a type of beer) at the time of the incident"?

When we learn more information about the avalanche and its sad aftermath, we'll update this post. In the meantime, here are more photos of the slide area from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Continue for more photos of the fatal avalanche.

More from our News archive: "Did dog cause fatal avalanche?"

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