> Accidents > Colorado > 2004-05
  Colorado Avalanche Accidents 2004-05 

May 20, 2005 - Arapahoe Basin

May 18, 2005 - Buffalo Mtn, Gore Range

April 6, 2005 - Peak 6, Tenmile Range

April 1, 2005 - Grand Mesa

March 27, 2005 - Jones Pass

March 21, 2005 - Red Mountain Pass

March 24, 2005 - Quandary Peak

March 6, 2005 - Aspen

February 26, 2005 - Whitehouse Mtn

February 13, 2005 - Red Mountain Pass

January 12, 2005 - Cleaver, Marble

January 3, 2005 - Soda Mountain, Buffalo Pass

November 21, 2004 - Eureka

Arapahoe Basin
May 20, 2005
1 in-area skier caught, buried and killed

At about 10:30 this morning a 53-year-old male skier from Boulder was buried and killed in a medium-sized wet slab avalanche at Arapahoe Basin. The avalanche occurred in an area known as the First Alley, immediately below the roll on the west side of the Pallavicini Run. This is the fifth Colorado avalanche death of the 2004-05 season and the 27th in the US.

The Arapahoe Basin Ski Patrol responded immediately and were soon joined by members of the Summit County Rescue Group. A portion of the victim's ski boot was spotted at the surface. A Flight For Life helicopter flew the man to a hospital, but he could not be resuscitated after a burial of about 31 minutes.

The search effort was suspected at 12:45 (Summit Daily News) because of the threat of additional wet snow avalanches caused by the high temperatures. By late afternoon no other skiers or riders had been reported missing, but a search effort will continue on Saturday morning. If conditions allow. Rescuers are hoping for a cool night.

The Avalanche
What triggered the avalanche cannot be determined with 100% certainty. The avalanche was most likely triggered by the victim and therefore is classified as WS-AS-R3-D3-G (wet slab, ski triggered, medium size, ran to ground). We base this on the fact that nearly 95% of victims trigger the slide that catches them, and we have heard of no confirmation that other skiers were in the area … skiers who could have been the trigger. However, there is a possibility that the victim was skiing the lower part of the slope when it released as a natural avalanche far above him. In that case, the avalanche would be classified as WS-N-R3-D3-G (wet slab, natural release, medium size, ran to ground).

The avalanche released at treeline at about 11,770 feet. The initial fracture was 2.5 to 3.5 feet deep, but as the wet slab moved down the mountain in places it plowed to the ground releasing snow about 4 feet in depth. The debris was wet, heavy, and deep. Rescuers said that in places their 10-foot probes could not touch the ground. The slide was 150 feet across and fell about 670 vertical feet on the north-facing slope.

Details are few at this time, but we will have more to report soon. While we wait on details, below is some information about ski area avalanche deaths and late spring/early summer deaths.

Avalanche deaths occurring in-bounds on open terrain are very rare; in Colorado where nearly one-third of all US avalanche victims have died such accidents are extremely rare. The last skier killed on open terrain in a Colorado ski area occurred back on January 9, 1975. A man skiing in the trees between trails triggered and was killed in a small avalanche at Crested Butte.

In the United States -- prior to this accident -- there have been only 4 other skier-deaths on open terrain since 1985. One death occurred in California (November 1985), another in Utah in February, 1986); the third died in Wyoming (January, 1999). The fourth fatality occurred this winter when a 13-year-old boy was blown out of a lift chair and buried in Nevada.

In Colorado late spring/early summer avalanche deaths are also rare. From 1950/51 to 2003/04 201 people died in Colorado avalanches. This winter has now claimed 5 (One fewer than average). Since 1950 only one other victim died in a May avalanche.
(5/22/1977, South Arapaho Peak (Indian Peaks), 1 climber killed.)

June avalanches have claimed 4.
(6/13/1992, South Maroon Peak (Elk Mtns), 2 climbers killed. 6/13/1992, South Lookout Peak (near Ophir Pass), 1 climber killed. [Yes, the same day as S. Maroon Pk.] 6/18/1984, Elk Mountains (South of Aspen), 1 solo backcountry skier killed.

Two climbers have also died in July avalanches.

For comparison January, February, and March are the worst months with 42, 43, and 44 deaths respectively. 22 people have died in April avalanches.

Preliminary report posted, Atkins, May 20. Updated avalanche dimensions on May 24.

Note: This weekend is bringing the first real warm/hot days of spring and thaw conditions with very warm temperatures (well over 50 degrees at 12,000 feet). Overnight low temperatures will not freeze. The snowpack should be treated as though avalanches will be likely, both triggered and natural.

Timing will not help much due to the warm (hot) temperatures expected through the weekend. Even if you are on the high peaks, Anything below 14,000 ft. should be suspect to slide activity.

Buffalo Mountain, South End of Gore Range
May 18, 2005
1 backcountry snowboarder caught, partly buried and injured

Early this afternoon -- shortly before 1300 hours -- a backcountry snowboarder triggered a small slab avalanche on the north side of Buffalo Mountain. He received at least leg and face injuries and was rescued by Summit County Rescue Group and Flight for Life.

The avalanche occurred in the central gully of the north face of Buffalo Mountain, about 4 miles west of Silverthorne. This ski descent is a often called a "classic" for its long and straight descent of nearly 3000 vertical feet.

We will post more details as they become available.

This same couloir was the site of a double avalanche fatality on April 9, 1993 when a group of 4 backcountry skiers were caught in a much larger avalanche.

Note: This week is bringing the first real warm/hot days of spring and thaw conditions will cause unstable wet snow.

Atkins, May 19.

Peak 6, West side of Tenmile Range
April 6, 2005
An Incident

No accident occurred, no one was caught but a bit of an incident ensued and there are some important lessons to be learned by all. One of the skiers involved has posted a summary of events along with a sincere apology on http://www.tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=28239. Reported below is what we have heard from rescuers, and it is subject to change.

Here's what we heard:

On Wednesday afternoon a group of 3 skiers remotely triggered a large and long-running avalanche in the "Y" chute, one of several prominent avalanche paths on the backside of Peak 6 in the Tenmile Range. This slide ran nearly to the valley floor. There was considerable confusion about this avalanche and it seems the skiers likely never knew they had triggered the slide as they traversed well above treeline. The skiers continued their descending traverse to the "K" chute where they triggered a second avalanche. The skiers called the Copper Mountain Ski Patrol to report they had triggered a "big" slide, no one was caught, all were okay, and that they had a good route out. Confusion arose because the patrol could see 2 slides, and the "big" slide (in the Y chute) was much bigger than the K slide. The Copper Patrol could clearly see the 3 tracks entering the smaller slide but could see no tracks exiting, but the skiers had mentioned a big slide. The Summit County Sheriff's Office was notified and initiated a search and rescue operation.

With ski tracks in but no tracks out, rescuers from the Breckenridge and Copper ski patrols, Flight for Life, Summit County Rescue Group, and Summit County Sheriff's Office responded. Perhaps 20ish minutes after the first call the Copper Patrol received a second call from the skiers saying all were off the mountain, in their car, and headed down the highway. The caller refused to answer any questions, saying he wanted to remain anonymous and hung up. This was an unfortunate event, because a few extra minutes on the phone to answer truthfully where and how they had gotten out would have saved everyone involved a considerable amount of effort and grief. Instead the caller falsely reported they were safe and out, and on their way to Frisco when they were actually still on the mountain and a long ways from the valley floor.

Confusion rose dramatically when some else reportedly called the Breckenridge Ski Patrol "confirming" 3 people were buried. Presented with conflicting information the rescuers had to confirm there were 3 tracks out of the avalanche. Ideally it would have been even better to confirm the skiers were off the mountain before the search could be called off. Even if the call to the Breckenridge had not occurred, the rescuers would still want to confirm tracks out. With no visible tracks in the valley floor the best way to check the avalanche would be from the air.

Flight for Life flew to the site with an avalanche specialist and avalanche rescue dog and handler from the Breckenridge Ski Patrol. From the air the crew confirmed tracks in but could find no tracks out. Because of rugged terrain the helicopter could not land on the debris or even get close to the debris. Also because of significant avalanche danger rescuers could not immediately enter the area from above or from below.

By now the skiers had seen the helicopter and heard sirens, so they called back a third time to say they were out and okay, but they would not say where they were. The search effort continued because the rescuers didn't know where the skiers were, and couldn't find their tracks out of the avalanche or coming on into the valley floor.

Back in the valley a meeting was quickly called by rescuers to plan their response. Avalanche reduction work with explosives would be needed to make routes and the site safe for rescuers. This effort would take time. While plans were being made the helicopter flew back to the site with just the avalanche specialist for a closer look.

From the air came good news. Flying closer to the slope the helicopter crew spotted some faint tracks and then spotted the three skiers hiding in the trees. About this time came a fourth call, and the skiers admitted they were still on the mountain.

After awhile the three skiers finally made it to the valley floor and the awaiting throng of rescuers, sheriff deputies, and the media. The Summit Daily News reported this morning the trio were ticketed for violating the Colorado Skier Safety Act by ducking under a closure rope at the Breckenridge Ski Resort.

Unfortunately, events for the 3 skiers quickly got out of hand. As mentioned earlier a few extra minutes on the phone with a truthful appraisal of their situation would have resulted in a quiet and uneventful afternoon. They did the right thing when they called the patrol to say all was okay. We encourage folks to call authorities if they trigger an avalanche and think others might be watching, so an unnecessary rescue effort doesn't get started. (If there is any doubt rescuers will always respond.) If during the second call had the skiers said they were still working there way down and would call when they got out to the cars, that likely would have been the end of the story.

If one ever calls to report a slide and to say there is no need for rescue, make sure you call back to say not just that your out but also to add how you got out. Rescuers really like to be able to confirm that folks are indeed out and safe. In many cases someone will likely check for the tracks to confirm the story. When the story cannot be verified, a rescue will likely start. In this incident the tracks out could not be found, so the search continued.

In reading the first-person account (www.tetongravity.com) the trio's actions to continue down on to similar slopes after triggering an avalanche is interesting. What they did by continuing downhill was neither wrong or right; for them it worked. They got down safely, and it is probably what 99.99% of we gravity-loving skiers and riders would have done, but sometimes this action can lead right into the den of the avalanche dragon. Sometimes the better choice of action is to turn around and climb back uphill and return from where we came. Climbing back uphill also allows us to re-evaluate earlier decisions. We might decide to treat, or decide on a completely different route down, or on hot days we can wait until the snow refreezes. (If you decide to wait, wait at least an extra hour longer then you think to be necessary to allow for a better freeze and stronger snow.) Once we start downhill it is very difficult to change plans or routes. Gravity takes over and keeps pulling us down. If slopes become steeper or the snow wetter, the avalanche danger goes up. Despite increasing danger we usually continue downward bound because it seems easier to go with gravity than to work against it. However, sometimes it is safer to go against gravity.

Atkins, April 6, posted at 1000 and updated at 1145.

Grand Mesa
April 1, 2005
1 backcountry skier
caught, buried and killed

On Friday morning a 27-year-old Boulder man was buried and killed in an avalanche on Grand Mesa. He was backcountry skiing with a Grand Junction friend when they triggered the avalanche shortly before 11 a.m.

This is the fourth Colorado fatality of the season and the 25th in the US. This was also the 2nd avalanche fatality to have occurred on Grand Mesa. (See satellite image.) The other occurred on January 30, 1999.

Weather and Avalanches
This winter abundant snows have blanketed the Grand Mesa. By the end of March our 120-inch snow stake was buried -- 35 inches had fallen in the last week -- and the Natural Resources Conservation Service's SNOTEL site at Mesa Lakes reported 150% of normal.

On Thursday March 24, the Colorado Department of Transportation used explosives to trigger avalanches from the steep rocky areas above Colorado Highway 65. All shots produced wide soft slab avalanches that hit the road. Snows continued to fall and another control mission was conducted on Thursday, March 31. Explosives released several loose snow avalanches, including one about 100 yards away from the accident.

Accident Summary
After a week of winter-like weather high pressure had moved over the region and Friday morning dawned clear. Blue Bird skies and fresh powder awaited skiers, riders, and snowmobilers. Two young men, one from Boulder (age 27) and the other from Grand Junction (age 26) parked their pickup truck on the shoulder of SH 65. Behind them -- about 150 feet -- was a CDOT avalanche-hazard area sign. Just up the road and visible from the parking spot was debris from an avalanche triggered the day before. While the men readied their gear, two CDOT employees stopped and advised the pair they were parked in an avalanche area and that their ski plans were "not a good idea" because of the recent avalanche activity.

The pair replied they would dig a snowpit and evaluate the danger.

The pair then set out. The Boulder man broke trail switchbacking up the 42-degree slope. He used alpine touring skis and skins, in his pack was shovel but he carried no avalanche rescue beacon. The Grand Junction man followed well behind on snowshoes, without a beacon or shovel or probe. He wore only snowshoes and carried a camera; he did not have skis or a snowboard.

The Boulder man had skinned up through a small rock band and was near a small rock outcrop when he triggered the avalanche. He was swept over the rocks and down into the trees.

The Grand Junction man was at a switchback when the heard the snow "pop." The avalanche fractured and released a few feet in front of and below him. He called 911.

Mesa County Search and Rescue Groups responded from the Grand Junction area. After the 911 call we are unsure of the Grand Junction man's actions, other than he returned back to the highway and flagged down two CDOT plow drivers who were soon joined by 3 other CDOT employees.

Three CDOT plow drivers immediately responded with their beacons, shovels, and probes. Unfortunately the victim did not have a beacon. The workers found both skis in the snow and was feverously spot probing the likely area. Once additional rescuers arrived at the site spot probing near the skis found the victim within 10 minutes, but it was too late. He had been buried nearly 2 hours.

[CDOT mountain plow drivers are well trained and equiped for avalanche rescue. The employees did an excellent job by quickly assessing the danger, organizing a search, and searching in the right area.]

He had been buried face down under 2 feet of debris in a spread-eagle position. He had been swept between some trees but did not appear to have physical trauma. It is presumed he died of asphyxiation.

The Avalanche
The avalanche was classified as a SS-AS-2-O. It was a medium-sized avalanche relative to the avalanche path. The avalanche fractured 2.5 feet deep by about 300 feet across. It fell 250 vertical feet. The slide occurred on a NNW aspect at 10,560 feet with a slope angle of 42 degrees.

The soft slab -- 1-finger hardness -- was perched above a thin, soft, loose weak layer (5 mm thick) of mixed forms (faceted, sugar-like grains starting to show signs of rounding). A compression test done along the crown revealed a "hard" shear; however, the block fractured clean and fast (Q1). A week before this same weak layer was responsible for the large avalanches triggered by CDOT avalanche control teams. The fatal accident occurred on an uncontrolled slope about 100 yards east of an avalanche that had been triggered the day before.

The quality of a shear is very important and has been used by avalanche workers for years, but it is just recently finding its way into use by recreationalists. Shear quality scores can be a very important indicator of false stability -- when stability test scores are high. A quality 1 shear (Q1) along with a hard or strong shear test can indicate dangerous slab conditions. [If you would like to know more about shear quality, here is a pdf file you can view from Karl Birkland of the USFS.]

The CAIC Danger Rating
On the morning of the 1st the backcountry avalanche danger in the C mtns: "Near and above treeline the danger is CONSIDERABLE on slopes facing N-E-SW where recent drifting has occurred. On other aspects the danger is MODERATE on steep, recently drifted areas. Below treeline the danger is MODERATE, but with pockets of CONSIDERABLE developing on steep, sunny aspects in the afternoon."

The signs -- literally -- of obvious avalanche danger (fresh avalanches, a road sign, piles of debris from a week earlier, and personal advice) were there. The pair's failure to recognize the seriousness and validity of these signs (or clues) and to adjust their actions to lessen their risk, lead to this accident. Avalanche accidents usually happen because of ignorance, arrogance, overconfidence, or distractions; the pair knowingly or unknowingly assumed a combination of these factors and put themselves into harm’s way.

Ignorance can be overcome by getting educated and using the Center's forecasts. At least one of the men had some avalanche awareness as they mentioned doing a snowpit. The pair may have seemed arrogant in their actions, but no one likes to be advised by someone else not to do something, especially when they have done it many times before. (We do not know if they had been in this area before.) Arrogance is best overcome when one realizes they can make mistakes. The pair was not planning on making a mistake, as they carried no rescue gear. Overconfidence is overcome by expecting the unexpected. On Friday morning the pair did not expect to encounter an avalanche. And, distractions are overcome by focusing on the avalanche conditions.

This accident was mostly likely the result of ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps with more avalanche training the pair would have had the knowledge to put the clues into the proper context. Unfortunately their ignorance was compounded by their arrogance. Not carrying avalanche rescue gear on an obvious avalanche slope during times of obvious danger is a death sentence for a buried friend. A beacon, probe, and shovel in the hands of a skilled companion might have changed the outcome.

Everyone venturing into avalanche terrain should carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear; however, we must remember that surviving an avalanche burial is more a matter of luck than skill and equipment. Therefore we should travel as if we left our rescue gear at home.

Jones Pass, Front Range Range
March 27, 2005
3 backcountry skiers caught, 1 partly buried, 2 buried, and
1 completely buried and injured

At about 0930 hours Easter Sunday an experienced and well-equipped group of 4 backcountry skiers were climbing upslope on the east side of point 12,118 near Jones Pass when a large avalanche released. The group was zigzagging low in the track of a path called Doctor 2. The group was probably at only about 11,100 feet when struck by the avalanche. Three skiers were caught, one partly buried, one buried but his legs were sticking out, and was skier was completely buried and seriously injured.

Two skiers quickly uncovered the one buried friend and then started looking for the missing skier. His cries from under the snow could be heard, but the trio needed their beacons to pinpoint his position. He was found after a short of a few minutes under about 2 feet of snow. Worse he had been swept into stump along with a "nasty looking sapling that had been fashioned [probably by previous avalanches] into a very effective lance.

He was quickly uncovered and upon seeing blood in the snow the victim's wife headed out to get to get help. She met another group of skiers a short distance below in the big meadow. This group consisted of an EMT (a former professional ski patroller) and two friends who were also WFR trained (Wilderness First Responders). The trio hurried to the site while the women headed continued to ski down to the trailhead. She met a number of snowmobilers and with one returned back to the accident site and her husband. At some point someone was able to contact 911 and the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office. Rescuers from Alpine Rescue Team, Clear County Ambulance, the Sheriff's Office, and Flight for Life responded.

At the avalanche the skiers -- now turned rescuers -- sized up the situation. The EMT quickly recognized the seriousness of the injuries: a very large laceration of the upper leg and fractures. Dressings, bandages, and splints were improvised and the subject was moved to an improvised litter carried behind a snowmobile. He was transported to the trailhead and moved by ambulance to a Flight for Life helicopter and transported to a Denver hospital. The subject ended up with a fractured pelvis and a very large laceration that just missed his femoral artery. After hours of surgery, he is expected to make a full recovery.

The Avalanche
Initial reports classify the soft slab avalanche as an SS-N-3-O. It may have been triggered from below by the group as they climbed upwards, but there is also a chance that it was a natural release, and the accident was a case of bad luck: wrong place, wrong time. A clue that caught our attention for the natural release was a 10 degree (F) temperature change right before the accident. Also the crew on the Flight for Life helicopter flying to the sight saw several fresh-looking natural avalanches that had occurred on similar slopes and aspects between Frisco and Jones Pass. These slides had run a day or maybe even hours earlier. There were no recent avalanches visible to the skiers in the Jones Pass area.

The avalanche occurred on an east aspect at about 11,700 feet. It was upwards of 900 feet across and fell about 800 vertical feet. The group was traveling about 600 feet below where the fracture line cleaved across the rocky slope. The fracture looks to be about 1-2 feet deep but in pockets it broke down into deeper snow layers. Most of the debris stopped on the bench above the group. At this snow overrun the bench the outcome for the three skiers caught would have been much worse.

We will visit the site on Monday and will report more details as later.

The CAIC Danger Rating
N mtns: ... "Front Range and Summit/Vail zones: near and above treeline on N-E-S-SW aspects the danger is CONSIDERABLE. On other aspects and below treeline the danger is MODERATE with pockets of CONSIDERABLE on terrain near 35 degrees or steeper."

This accident appears to have happened to a very knowledgeable, well-trained, and well-equiped group that ran into bad luck. They were staying off steep slopes and were staying low in the track. Often it's a reasonble place to be. Even if they triggered the slide from the bench or from below, this would be a very unusual condition to encounter so late in the winter.

This accident fortunately has a happy ending and appears to be the result of training and practice along with some luck. It also demonstrates the value and importance of having strong first aid skills. We always advise to people to get educated about avalanches, and if you spend any time in the backcountry you and your friends should also get trained in wilderness emergency care. You never know when you might be called upon to help someone in need. Hats off to the skiers and snowmobilers who worked together to save the injured man.

Atkins, March 28, 2005

Quandary Peak, Tenmile Range
March 24, 2005
2 climbers caught, 1 buried, and killed

At about 1220 Thursday afternoon two climbers were caught in an avalanche on the south side of Quandary Peak. One man survived with only minor injuries while his friend was buried and killed. At 14,265 feet Quandary Peak is a popular "14er" for winter climbers and skiers. Located at the south end of the Tenmile Range the summit is about 6.5 miles SSW of Breckenridge.

The two climbers -- both male -- were friends via a church group. One man -- the survivor -- was from Omaha (NE) and the other from Colorado Springs. They left at about 0830 and arrived at the Blue Lakes Dam at about 1000 hours. They pair left their snow shoes at the dam, strapped on crampons and started up the Monte Cristo Couloir which hits the summit from the south.

The pair were climbing at very different speeds. The Omaha man was climbing much faster. He remembers looking back at about 13200 feet; where the slope is a bit less steep and saw his partner below him and about 30-40 minutes behind. He waved to him motioning that he was going to continue. At about 13800’ he heard and felt a big “whumph.” The slope fractured about 30 feet above him. He instantly turned around but could not see his friend below. In the next second or two he was swept from his feet and tumbled down the entire length of the couloir. He ended up at the very toe of the debris but on the surface.

He got to his feet and not seeing or hearing his friend he set out to get help. He did not have to travel far as he was soon able to notify rescuers -- 911 -- via his cell phone from just near the dam. At about 1240 Thursday afternoon the Summit County Sheriff's Office received the call of the avalanche accident. Neither man carried avalanche rescue gear.

Rescuers from the Summit County Rescue Group, Summit County Sheriff's Office, Flight for Life helicopter, Breckenridge Ski Patrol, Copper Mountain Ski Patrol, Keystone Ski Patrol, Alpine Rescue Team, and Red, White, and Blue Fire Department responded.

The buried man was found dead at 1630 hours by an avalanche rescue dog from the Breckenridge Ski Patrol. The victim was buried under 1.15 meters of debris.

The Avalanche
Initial reports have the avalanche as a HS-AF-2+-O. This hard slab avalanche was triggered by the climbers and though it released from a large search area -- over 600 feet across -- the avalanche was small relative to the avalanche path. The fracture line was only 1 foot deep. The avalanche started at about 13,800 feet and fell to nearly 11,700 feet from a very wind-loaded (or wind-drifted) S aspect.

The CAIC Danger Rating
N mtns: ... "Front Range and Summit/Vail zones: near and above treeline on N-E-S-SW aspects the danger is CONSIDERABLE with pockets of HIGH in recently drifted lee areas. On other aspects and below treeline the danger is rated MODERATE with pockets of CONSIDERABLE on slopes steeper than 35 degrees."

At this time information is still limited but we will pass along new information as it becomes available.

Over the years Quandary Peak -- especially the south side -- has be the site of numerous avalanche and mountaineering accidents. On November 11, 2002 two climbers were caught and 1 was seriously injured when swept down the south side of the peak.

A lone backcountry skier was buried and killed on the south side of the peak on December 21, 1999.

Sawtell and Atkins
1800hrs, updated at 2130 and 2345, March 24, 2005

Aspen, Five Fingers Bowl, Elk Mountains
March 6, 2005
1 backcountry skier caught, buried, and killed

At about 1445 hours Sunday afternoon a 32 year-old man was buried and killed in a sizable avalanche in the backcountry near the Aspen Highlands Ski Area. At the of the avalanche the man was participating in a Level II avalanche-awareness class in Five Fingers Bowl. (Five Fingers Bowl has become a popular out-of-area ski tour adjacent to the Aspen Highlands ski area. Access is either from the top of Highlands Peak via a USFS backcountry access gate or to climb from the bottom starting at Conundrum Creek.) He was the only person caught.

Details are few and what follows is preliminary and subject to change. We know the group had dug several snow pits across the top of the bowl as they traversed southward. Stability tests indicated moderate shears or what we might call "so-so conditions;" the tests and pits apparently did not reveal obvious instability or stability. The group -- skiing one at a time -- were working their way down a prominent rib and gully below the "thumb" (point 12,495). A skier would ski toward the gully or perhaps even in the gully and then traverse back to the rib to wait for the next skier. The victim -- skiing third -- skied into or toward the gully and fell and rolled. This triggered the avalanche that broke some distance above him and swept him down nearly the entire track.

Words likely cannot describe the horror the group experienced watching one their own swallowed up in a churning torrent of snow. They descended quickly but cautiously; at one point they had to remove their skis to down climb a rock band. It may have taken as long as 20-30 minutes to reach the debris and a transceiver signal was quickly detected. It was only a matter of minutes before they had pinpointed the signal and started digging. They found their friend under 3-4 feet of snow, and started CPR for at least an hour without success.

Minutes after the avalanche 2 members of Mountain Rescue Aspen were driving from Ashcroft back to Aspen when they noticed the fresh looking avalanche. From the road and using binoculars they were able to see ski tracks including one track ending at the fracture line. They could not see the skiers and drove a short distance down the road and looked again. This time they could see the skiers descending the debris. It was a short time later their rescue pagers sounded with the report of the accident. They quickly drove to the "trailhead" and started up to help. The body was evacuated by the group and by Mountain Rescue Aspen. The Aspen Times web site wrote the Pitkin County Coroner's Office said the victim died from asphyxiation.

The Avalanche
Early reports classify the avalanche as a SS-AS-3-O. This medium to large-sized avalanche -- large, only because it ran so far -- released about 3 feet deep by about 150 feet across. The slab fractured 200 feet above the helpless skier. The fracture line was just below 12,200 feet and the avalanche fell about 3,000 vertical feet, stopping below 9,200 feet, or just short of the last steep pitch above Conundrum Creek. The avalanche released from the steep northeast-facing side of the gully in cold, dry snow, but by the time the avalanche stopped it had plowed into wet snow low in the runout. The victim was found about 200 yards uphill of the toe or end of the debris.

Weather Conditions
The weather on Sunday the 6th was beautiful and spring-like; however, it was not a cause for the accident. Though snow near the valley floor was wet, the snow high in Five Finger Bowl was cold, and dry. Temperatures at the time of the accident were in the upper 20s and a light breeze blew from the west.

Temperatures during February and for the first six days of March were very mild. The average daily temperatures stayed in the upper teens to upper 20s for nearly the entire month. Only on three days did the average daily temperature barely dipped below 10F, and those days were weeks earlier.

As mild as temperatures were, February snowfall at both Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain was probably about normal with 40 and 46 inches reported. At higher elevations like the upper reaches of Highlands Bowl and Five Fingers Bowl, even more snow fell. In the first few days of March, 2.4 and 4.6 inches of new snow were reported at Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain.

Winds were almost as mild as the temperatures for the month of February and early March; however, on a few days around the Presidents Weekend some brisk southwest winds did cause some blowing and drifting snow at mountaintop levels.

The Snowpack
Few exact details are known. Most likely a persistent layer of faceted, sugar-like grains that formed during the dry and mild last 2 weeks of January were the culprit. This particular slope may have avalanched earlier this season, leaving behind a generally shallow snow cover where a strong temperature gradient weakened the snowcover. If the slope did not avalanche, near-surface facets formed during the dry end of January. In both situations the weak snow was buried by February snows.

As we learn more information about the snow cover, we will pass it along.

The CAIC Danger Rating
The backcountry avalanche danger posted (telephone hotlines) Sunday morning for the C mtns was "overall MODERATE near and above treeline. Below treeline LOW. Crested Butte zone: MODERATE overall."

All avalanche accidents ending with serious injuries or death are tragic, especially for the friends and family of the victim. This accident strikes close to home for many of us who work in avalanche terrain and especially for those of us who teach avalanche education.

Atkins, updated on March 7 at 2300 hours.

Whitehouse Mountain, Marble
Feburary 26, 2005
2 backcountry skiers
caught, 1 partly buried, 1 buried and injured

Weather Conditions
After a series of monster storms during the first half of January moved out, the Colorado Mountains were left high and dry. For two weeks--from January 12-26--strong high pressure dominated Colorado as weather conditions turned spring-like. Though air temperatures turned mild and the snow on the south aspects turned wet, the snow on the shaded north sides of mountains stayed cold and winter-like. Conditions were perfect for the growth of very large surface hoar and near surface facets, especially near and below treeline. Both grains types are notorious for becoming dangerous, persistent weak layers when buried by future snows.

Winter returned on January 27, with the first of several weak storms and over the next week slowly buried the surface hoar and near surface facets under 10.5 inches of new snow--measured at nearby McClure Pass. A week later another storm dropped 10 more inches of new snow. During this time skiers and riders reported excellent powder conditions and few avalanches. After a break in the snowfall for several days a series of storms rolled across the Elk Mountains with nearly daily snowfall for the next two weeks. From Feburary 12-18, 14 inches of snow fell. More light snow followed with 27 inches from the 19th to the 26, including 4 inches new. Since the 27th of January 61 inches fell and buried the weak layers of late January. Accounting for settlement in the new snow the weak layer was buried under about 20 inches of snow. At mountain-top levels and along high-elevation ridgelines stronger winds and drifting snow likely buried the weak layer under 2-3 times as much snow.

Saturday the 26th started suspiciously. Clouds and moderate snow greeted the new day, but during the day conditions improved with lifting clouds and only light snow, winds stayed light, and temperatures climbed into the upper 20s.

Accident Summary
On Saturday the 26th two young Vail men (both 19) drove to Marble and toward the Yule Quarry. Their goal was to ski the main face--a huge avalanche path--on the northwest side of Whitehouse Mountain (11,975 feet). The year before, the pair skied the same path and were looking forward to a repeat performance of excellent powder.

Instead of hiking straight up the path--as they had done the winter before--the pair opted to skin up the west side of Whitehouse. They likely spent most of the day breaking trail up the more than 3,000-vertical-foot ascent arriving near the top late in the afternoon. They traversed over to the north ridge at about 11,300 feet and continued upwards for another two hundred vertical feet or so. Just below the ridgeline -- at treeline -- they dug a snowpit.

It is unknown what they found or how they tested the snow layers, but they were satisfied the snow was stable. By the time they were ready to start down the snow had stopped falling and their spirits soared. The plan was to ski down a short distance by staying close to small some trees and then traverse to far skier's right edge of the path and hug the trees the rest of the way down. This way they would avoid some of the steepest terrain in the starting zone.

It was about 5 pm when the pair started down; after about 50 turns they heard the menacing "whumpf" as the snow collapsed. Fractures shot out around and above them. Fractures shot far upslope, past where they had even dug their pit. In the blink of an eye the slab was in motion. Both skiers grabbed trees and held on. Initially the snow swept past them, but as the fractures propagated further upslope more snow kept crashing down into them. After a few more seconds they both were ripped from their trees and tumbled down the mountainside.

When the avalanche stopped one skier ended up at the very end of the debris. Though he had tried to swim he was shallowly buried with only his right arm out of the snow. Fortunately only a few inches of snow covered his back and head and he was able to dig himself out. Despite wearing a helmet he still suffered a nasty head wound that would later require 12 stitches. He could not see or hear his friend, so he started a transceiver search. The prospective was daunting. Battered from the violent ride in the slide, the search would require climbing back uphill over 1,000 vertical feet while zig zagging across debris that stretched wider than the length of a football field. He started the search but did not detect a signal.

Fortunately both skiers were lucky. The second skier was swept downhill about 700 vertical feet but was caught by a tree high in the path. Though swept into the tree, he was not injured and only partly buried. He was able to free himself and started down looking for his friend. It was not too long before they established voice contact and soon met up. By now it was almost dark.

The pair had lost all their equipment and faced a long walk down the path and then through deep snow to the river. At the river they found a road which they followed to a bridge.

Finally, at about 2300 hours they stumbled upon a cabin. The weary pair let themselves in and settled in for the night. Before leaving the next morning they left a note describing what had happened. One set out to get their vehicle.

Early in the morning a lone hitchhiker was picked up headed toward the quarry road. He shared the story of their mishap to the local motorist who then dropped him off at his vehicle. The skier retreived his friend and the pair set off for home.

Sunday morning dawned sunny and Marble residents looked out their windows to a huge avalanche on Whitehouse Mountain. Morning shadows hid any evidence of tracks, but when the sun reached the upper portion of the starting zone the tracks became visible. The alarm was sounded. As locals sought better vantage points to look for clues as to what happened, word of the potental accident spread quickly. The helpful motorist came forward and told the searchers of morning's events; the search was stopped.

Avalanche Data
Triggered by the skiers, this large avalanche was classified as SS-AS-4-O. With a northwest aspect this large soft slab avalanche released from an elevation of 11,600 feet and fell all the way to 8,600. The avalanche extended about 600 feet across the entire width of the path, and the fracture line was estimated to be at least 6-8 feet deep.

No fracture line profile was performed, but we are certain the avalanche released on a significant weak layer of surface hoar and/or near surface facets that formed during the last two weeks of January.

CAIC Danger Rating
One of the skiers received our danger rating from either the telephone hotline or web page the day before. Fom our afternoon forecast day the before (February 25) for the C Mtns: "...Only one avalanche reported today, a natural that ran overnight near Ashcroft, in the C Mtns. This continues the decrease in reported avalanche activity, indicating that the snowpack is slowly stabilizing. There is still a significant weak layer under a substantial slab. As the slab consolidates, it will be harder to trigger an avalanche. There will be places you can venture into steeper terrain without causing an avalanche. But if you hit a trigger point, the consequences could be severe. The key will be figuring out where, and how weak, this combination of slab and weak layer really is.

"C Mtns: The avalanche danger is MODERATE with pockets of CONSIDERABLE on N-E-S aspects and cross-drifted slopes and gullies near and above treeline."

At least three key points come to mind when reviewing this accident and recognizing how Incredibly lucky these young men were. Tackling Colorado's steep avalanche-prone slopes in mid winter is always a risky proposition. At Whitehouse Mountain there had been no recent large storms, only the steady accumulations of light snow for about a month. Usually this means less avalanche problems, but this time it contributed to a large and deep avalanche. A deep-slab avalanche surprised the pair. It was not until the two were well down the slope -- 50ish turns -- when they triggered the avalanche. There -- sheltered from the wind -- the slab was thinner and their body weights had a greater affect on the weak layers of surface hoar and faceted grains.

These young men tried or thought they were doing the right things, but they made some easy-to-make assumptions and mistakes that nearly cost them their lives. Certainly their young ages mean little experience, but it was the deep-slab conditions that almost did them in. A second point has to do with snow pits, and in this accident the snow pit likely gave them the final affirmative they needed before starting down the path.

Digging quick pits and testing the snow layers is a common helped used to judge unstable conditions. Too often backcountry travelers use snow pits to judge stability. The pair did dig a pit and deemed the snow "stable." It's unknown how they conducted their evaluation, but inside their pit they may have not missed anything or done anything wrong. They might have dug deep, but not deep enough, or there may not have even been a weak layer where they dug the pit. The problem may not have been how the pit was dug but rather where it was dug.

The pair dug their pit high on the slope and just below the ridgeline. Research and experience shows that snow pits and stability tests performed at the top of starting zones are much less reliable then pits and tests performed lower on a slope. The tops of slopes may not be as steep and are more affected by winds. Winds prevent the formation of surface hoar and certainly mean deeper wind-drifted snow. Deeper snow typically means stronger snow or buries the weak layer under a thick slab. Thus snow pits dug near the top of slopes often present as stronger and more stable then what really lurks lower on the slope. They were likely fooled because their snow pit was dug in a less-steep area of deep, wind-drifted snow. Recognizing and selecting a representative site for a snow pit takes a lot of experience and even the most experienced sometimes dig in the wrong spots.

Because snow pits are a single measure, pits should never be used to say, "GO" or to confirm the snow is "stable." A snow pit result is only another piece of information and must be coupled with weather history, topography, snow structure, and shear quality. A strong-snow or stable result means uncertainty. A weak-snow or unstable result is a certain result, so snow pits can and should be used to say "NO GO" or "unstable."

The third key point to mention is that both skiers were caught in the same avalanche. It is always a mistake when more than one person is caught. Of course it is easy to write this from the safety and comfort of an office, but the "golden rule" of backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is always, "Go one person at a time." Most buried avalanche victims found alive are found by their companions. In the backcountry a companion is the "rescue team," and when the companion is caught, partly buried, buried, injured, or killed there is no rescue of the living. The next rescue team in usually makes a recovery of the dead.

The seduction of powder is a powerful enticement to play on backcountry slopes. We must be willing to temper our enthusiasm so not to take unnecessary risks. One way to do this is to always think of snow and steep slopes as unstable, and continually ask yourself "What am I missing?" This will keep you looking for clues to dangerous conditions. If you think of snow as stable, we tend to put on blinders and seek clues that only confirm stability. This narrow vision is a recipe for disaster.

Atkins and Hunker, June 1, 2005.

Red Mountain Pass, San Juan Mountains
February 13, 2005
1 backcountry skier caught and buried

On Sunday afternoon a very experienced backcountry skier and a CAIC avalanche forecaster -- free skiing with friends -- was caught and buried a medium-sized avalanche near Red Mountain Pass. Companions quickly found our forecaster with transceivers and had him uncovered in 7 minutes. He was unconscious when found but quickly recovered and was able to return back to their cars under his own power.

Events Prior to the Avalanche
Earlier in the day a group of 6 very experienced backcountry skiers and avalanche hands set out from Red Mountain Pass for a day of touring and skiing. The morning passed with excellent skiing in beautiful San Juan weather.

By early afternoon the skiers found themselves on the south shoulder of Red Mountain No. 3. A snowpit was dug and some stability tests done. At this time we do not know the exact results but the conditions were deemed reasonable. The first skier would set a track with others to stay to the skier's left and follow one at a time.

After eight or ten turns the slope fractured and the slab started to slide. Another group of skiers nearby watched as the slope immediately above the skier shattered like a pane of glass and swept over the skier. They reported no sound, no powder cloud, only the sound of flowing snow.

The skier's group above was out of sight because of the convex shape of the slope, but heard the others yelling. The other nearby group yelled and yelled but heard and saw nothing.

Within 30 seconds the skiers group appeared above but had to move to the south side to safely approach the debris. Both groups combined efforts and quickly evaluated that it was safe to reach the slide. With all transceivers to receive they raced to the debris. Instantly a signal was detected; within minutes the signal was pinpointed, and the buried skier confirmed with a probe pole.

The skier was uncovered unconscious from under 2 feet of debris after 7 minutes. He regained consciousness as was able to descend back to the cars on his own. (He did get a hand or two as he lost a ski in the slide.)

The Avalanche
The avalanche was classified as a SS-AS-3-O. It was a medium-sized avalanche relative to the avalanche path. The avalanche fractured 2 feet deep by about 300 feet across. It fell 500 vertical feet. The slide occurred on a NW aspect at about 11,700 feet with a slope angle of 41 degrees.

The CAIC Danger Rating
On the morning of the 13th we rated the backcountry danger in the Southern mountains as "generally LOW below treeline, though locally pockets of MODERATE exist in areas that received 6+ inches of new snow like Coal Bank Pass. Near and above treeline the danger is MODERATE with pockets of CONSIDERABLE on all aspects." The elevation of this avalanche (11,700 feet) would be "near treeline."

We will have more details and information along with comments to add as this lucky skier was one of our own forecasters. He has taken some time off after the accident, so please give us some time to collect the information.

The Cleaver, The Raggeds
January 12, 2005
Not an accident -- just a really big avalanche!

Begining in late December a strong, warm, and very wet storm track swept over Colorado bringing 6-10 feet of new snow to the higher elevations of western and southern Colorado. The Elks and West Elk Mountain ranges of the Central Mountains were especially hard hit. On McClure Pass CAIC forecaster Rob Hunker measured 81.5 inches of snow (7.95 inches of water). Remote instrumentation at the Natural Resources Conservation Service's SNOTEL site at Schofield Pass recorded 8 inches of snow water equivalent. With nearly 7 feet of new snow in the West Elks and Ragged Mountains the series of storms produced numerous large and destructive avalanches.

High pressure returned to Colorado and chased away the storms resulting in a 2 week stretch of mild, spring-like weather. As recreationists ventured into the mountains news of large avalanches were reported back to the Center.

One of the best reports comes from Jon Fredericks and Andrew Heltzel who came upon the destruction of a monstrous avalanche near Marble in a path known by locals as the Cleaver (aka Chair Horn).

The Cleaver Avalanche Path
The Cleaver avalanche path sits on the NE side of point 11,866, about 4.5 miles west of Marble and about 1 mile northeast of Chair Mountain. It is a very large, bowl-shaped path above treeline that faces northeast.

On or just before January 12, 2005 a very large and deep soft slab avalanche released near the top of the path. It fell over 3000 vertical feet and extended the runout zone far into the Aspens. The avalanche traveled over 1 mile and removed over 80 acres of large Aspens. Branches on stout old trees were broken off 40 feet above the ground. Broken tops of conifers were found hundreds of feet downslope of the debris, tossed there like matchsticks. In the runout zone the path is about a 1/4 mile across.

The Avalanche
The avalanche was classified as SS-N-5. This was a maximum-sized avalanche relative to the avalanche path; it actually significantly increased the size and length of the runout zone. There is some debate as to whether this avalanche was a 30-year event or even a 50 to100-year event. Given the size of the Aspens destroyed I say it is closer to a 100-year avalanche.


Soda Mountain (Buffalo Pass), Park Range
January 3, 2005
1 backcountry skier buried and killed

Around lunch time Monday the Routt County Sheriffs Office was notified a backcountry skier had been buried on Soda Mountain near Buffalo Pass. Companions quickly found their friend after 8-10 minutes but could not revive the 26-year-old skier. The group had used snowmobiles to access the backcountry.

The avalanche occurred on the southeast side of Soda Mountain. Soda Mountain is about 7.5 miles NE of the town of Steamboat Springs and about 7.5 miles N of the ski area. Locals call this path the Flume of Doom.

The hard slab avalanche released by the skier (or skiers) fractured about 2 feet deep on a south-southeast aspect at 10,600 feet. The avalanche fell 200 vertical feet. Because of some mechanical problems getting in to and out of the site our observer Art Judson had limited time and was not able to do a fracture line profile.The starting zone angle is estimated to be about 38 degrees and even steeper in the rocks. I estimate the weak layer was faceted sugar-like snow over and around the rocks.

We will post more photos and details when they become available.

CAIC Danger Rating
The backcountry avalanche danger for the Steamboat zone was LOW below 8,000 feet, and MODERATE above 8,000 feet.


First Gully, Eureka (near Silverton), San Juan Mountains
November 21, 2004
3 ice-climbers caught, 1 buried and injured, 1 partly buried

Mid-morning, three ice-climbers (all males in their early 20s) on the second pitch of First Gully were hit by an avalanche. The lead climber was knocked off the route, and fell approximately 200 feet to the ground. He was buried under about 6 inches of debris, but able to clear his face by himself. The avalanche hit the other two climbers, partially burying one, and breaking all but their back-up anchor. The party had planned to climb Stairway to Heaven, but changed routes because they felt avalanche danger on Stairway was too high. Poor visibility and unfamiliarity with the area prevented them from seeing the avalanche terrain above First Gully.

Events Prior to the Avalanche
The group left Silverton around 0700, planning to climb Stairway to Heaven near Eureka. The group felt uneasy about avalanche conditions but had not called the CAIC hotline. On the way to Eureka, they saw evidence of natural avalanches on a north aspect, and knew the avalanche danger would be relatively high with the new snow. Because Stairway was exposed with a large and steep avalanche starting zone above the climb, they altered their plans to climb a route they felt would have less avalanche danger. They began climbing First Gully at 0800.

At approximately 1100, the lead climber was about 100 feet up the second pitch. Looking up, he saw the avalanche coming, and then was hit and knocked off the climb. The leader fell about 200 feet. He was buried under 6 inches of snow, but was able to quickly uncover his face. The avalanche hit the belayer and third climber as well. The force of the snow broke all but their backup ice-screw anchor. The avalanche knocked over the belayer and buried him to his waist in a sitting position. The third climber was standing at the belay, and not buried.

About 200 feet of the gully between the base of the climb and the road was filled with debris.

The CAIC issued an avalanche warning for the all of the Southern Mountains, including the San Juans, at 7:00 am that morning. Between 8 and 16 inches of snow fell overnight on the mountain passes near Silverton. The Silverton highway forecasters measured snowfall rate of 1-inch-an- hour for most of the morning.

The third climber (an Emergency Medical Technician) and belayer rappelled to the leader and uncovered him fully. An assessment indicated the leader's back was broken. The climbers stabilized the leader on a ledge they dug in the avalanche debris, and brought warm clothes from the nearby car. One climber went down to the road and flagged down a car. The group in the car contacted Search and Rescue.

Search and Rescue arrived within an hour. The belayer and third climber were down at the road, talking with the Sheriff, when another avalanche ran. Debris buried the injured leader under about 6 inches of snow again. He was able to uncover his face by himself. The debris filled about 200 feet of the gully, so was probably similar in size to the first avalanche, but the debris was described as softer.

The two climbers participated with Search and Rescue in the evacuation of the lead climber. He was taken to the hospital. [Update: Jan. 2005. The injured climber is recovering. He suffered fractured vertebra and ribs and is expected to make a full recovery.]

Many ice climbs form low in avalanche paths, and even small avalanches can hit climbers with considerable force. The climbers knew that there would be avalanche danger on their intended route, and altered plans to climb a route they felt would be safer. They did not know, could not see, and were unable to evaluate the terrain and snowpack above the climb they chose. One climber commented that the avalanche hazard evaluation was different than if they had been backcountry skiing, where they could easily evaluate snow conditions. At the base of the climb, there was only the new snow on top of rocks, and no way to assess the snowpack above the route.

The two uninjured climbers have medical and avalanche training. Their medical training helped assess and stabilize the injured climber. They did not move him because of the spinal injury. They were lucky that the second avalanche was no larger than the first, that the injured climber was able to clear his head, and that only one of the party was caught.

It is unknown whether the avalanche was a slab or a loose snow avalanche; most like it was a loose snow avalanche that released naturally (or spontaneously) in the fresh snow off steep rocks or ice. Loose snow avalanches from steep terrain are common during times of heavy snowfall or high-intensity snowfall. Ice climbs can be especially dangerous during times of higher-intensity snowfalls. (In Colorado this means snowfall rates typically equal to and greater than about 1-inch-per-hour.) Even small loose-snow avalanches can hit with tremendous force in the narrow confines of an iced-gully. (In terms of impact pressure it is the velocity -- because the term is squared -- that is most important rather than the density of the snow.) Ice climbers should be very leery of narrow gullies during times of higher intensities snowfalls.

CAIC Danger Rating
The backcountry avalanche danger was rated at HIGH and an Avalanche Warning was inssued at 7:00 am.

We will post more information if/when it becomes available.

S Logan, 20041125

Atkins and Hunker, April 4, 2005
Colorado Avalanche Information Center 325 Broadway, WS1 Boulder, CO 80305 email us at caic@qwest.net

Colorado Avalanche Information Center
325 Broadway, WS1
Boulder, CO 80305
email us at caic@qwest.net