Last year was a particularly brutal avalanche season in Colorado and beyond.
As we reported at the time, one stretch in February 2014 saw six avalanche deaths in the American West over a stretch of less than a week.
This season, the tragedies have been fewer so far, but the numbers are still troubling. According to the invaluable Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an out-of-bounds skier death near Aspen Mountain yesterday marks the third in Colorado since the start of the 2014-2015 season.
The first fatality took place on December 31, 2014 on Kelso Mountain. The CAIC investigation page about that incident features the following photo....
...accompanied by a caption that reads: "The site of a fatal avalanche accident on the east flank of Kelso Mountain. The group's route into the area follows a near horizontal track on the right of the avalanche. Their route out leaves the lower portion of the debris. Photo taken December 31st."
Here are excerpts from its report:
Events Leading to the Avalanche
A party of two climbers met at the base of the Steven's Gulch road near the Bakerville exit on I-70. The two were acquainted through an Internet forum (14ers.com), but had never met in person. Their goal was to climb Torreys Peak via the Kelso Ridge route. At the trailhead they met a solo climber with a similar goal. They decided to form a group of three. They left the parking area at about 7:20 AM, traveling up the Steven's Gulch road. All three traveled on snowshoes and carried some winter climbing equipment. Climbers 1 and 2 each had an avalanche beacon, avalanche probe, and shovel. Climber 3 was not carrying any avalanche rescue equipment.
At the summer trailhead they crossed the footbridge and began following an existing skin track (an ascending track packed by a person on skis, using climbing skins). Climber 3 had seen a group of skiers leaving the trailhead in the dark and assumed they packed the track, but they did not know if the track was packed that morning. The skin track followed the summer trail and an old road. Although initially it led through low-angle rolling terrain, it moved closer to the steep flanks of Kelso Mountain and under a series of avalanche path as it wrapped around the southeast side.
Climbers 1 and 2 traveled a few hundred feet ahead of Climber 3 as they followed the skin track. Both had completed avalanche training and they discussed their discomfort with the route the skin track took. They discussed leaving the track for the low-angle terrain to the east, but were concerned about the shallow snowpack and deep willows in the middle of the drainage. This could be difficult traveling on snowshoes and they were moving quickly on the skin track as they headed for the saddle between Torreys Peak and Kelso Mountain to begin their climb.
Climbers 1 and 2 stopped on the track to discuss their plan immediately before the track led directly under a steep, cross-loaded gully. They were increasing uncomfortable with their route and decided to cross the gully one at a time. Climber 1 used the skin track to pass under the avalanche path into a shallow area of snow on the far side. She turned around to spot Climber 2, who had already started to cross the path. Climber 2 was about a third of the way across the path when the avalanche released. Climber 1 watched as Climber 2 was washed downhill in the avalanche. Initially Climber 2 was on top of the debris, but then disappeared from view. He was wearing a large backpack (in excess of 60 lbs) and once the snow was in motion it would have been very difficult for him to get out of harm's way.
Climber 1 turned her avalanche beacon to receive and began searching for Climber 2. She moved to the last place Climber 2 was visible. She yelled to Climber 3, who was about 300 feet away on the trail. Climber 1 followed the radio signal with her rescue beacon, but could not get a reading below 4.9 m. Climbers 1 and 3 cleared some of the loose blocks of snow away from surface and continued searching. They used one shovel, probe pole, and their snowshoes to find Climber 2's arm and from there his head. They performed rescue breaths, but could not revive him. They called 911 (one bar of cell signal) and relayed the details of the accident along with the location to the dispatcher. They left the accident site, breaking a new trail into the low-angle terrain below Kelso Mountain. On the way out, they saw a Flight-for-Life helicopter fly up the Steven's Gulch drainage.
The 911 call center alerted the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office, who activated the Flight For Life and the Alpine Rescue Team. As part of Flight For Life's Avalanche Deployment Program, the aircraft picked up an avalanche rescue dog, dog handler, and avalanche technician from the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The team flew into Steven's Gulch and surveyed the area. The pilot landed in a low-angle area below the avalanche. The search team began searching the debris with the avalanche dog, rescue beacons, and a Recco detector. They found Climber 2 partially excavated and continued to search for other victims. Searchers from the Alpine Rescue Team arrived at the site after speaking with Climbers 1 and 3. With the knowledge that there was only one victim, the search was called off and the search and rescuers focused on extricating Climber 2 from the debris.
This video gives insight into the investigation:
The second avalanche fatality happened on January 6.
The listed location is Kendall Mountain, Rabbit Ears/Arcade.
This photo's caption reads: "Looking across the crown of the avalanche:"
Here are relevant passages from the CAIC about that incident:
Events Leading to the Avalanche
A group of two (Skiers 1 and 2) set off on a tour with the intent of summiting Kendall Mountain and skiing the Idaho Gulch avalanche path. They started on the Lackawanna road just outside of Silverton, Colorado. They left the road at the edge of Swansea Gulch and crossed the valley. They ascended a short, steep route into the trees on the northwest face of Kendall Mountain. From here, they started up a wind-exposed, rocky ridge towards the summit.
They decided there was not enough time to reach the top. They traversed to the west to the Idaho Gulch avalanche path and engaged in a discussion about skiing it. Neither skier was comfortable entering Idaho Gulch, so they decided to traverse back to the east a short distance to the Rabbit Ears avalanche path. They recognized a steep, wind-loaded terrain feature at the top of the path as a hazard and decided to go around it. They entered the path slightly lower and skier's right in an area they felt would be safer. They regrouped below this steep feature and Skier 1 began her descent. Soon after she entered the path, the slope avalanched, fracturing a short distance above Skier 1.
The avalanche caught Skier 1 and debris quickly swept her up. The slope angle steepened to 42 degrees just below the trigger point. The avalanche accelerated down the steep pitch and Skier 2 lost sight of Skier 1.
As soon as the snow stopped moving, Skier 2 turned his transceiver to 'search' and began searching for Skier 1. Skier 2 continued his search downhill until he saw the distance readings on his transceiver start to go up, indicating he was below Skier 1. He stopped, removed his skis, and started back uphill towards the skiers left side of slope.
Skier 2 saw Skier 1 wrapped around a small tree. Her body was on the surface but her head was partially buried. Skier 2 uncovered it and recognized that Skier 1 had snow in her airway. Skier 2 cleared the airway and assessed her for any signs of breathing and circulation. Neither were present. Skier 2 called 911 to initiate the Search and Rescue response and then began CPR. Skier 2 continued CPR for over an hour until the first of the rescuers arrived and took over the scene.
Skier 2 placed the 911 call at 3:50. Rescuers including the San Juan County Search and Rescue team, Flight For Life, and employees of Silverton Mountain Ski Area assembled at the Kendall Mountain Recreation Center parking lot at the base of Kendall Peak. The Flight For Life helicopter ferried four rescuers, three of whom were EMT-B, to an area above the accident site. They descended to the accident site with a Sked rescue sled. They arrived and assessed Skier 1, finding a very weak carotid pulse and no respirations. The rescuers took over CPR and prepared the sled and patient for transport off the mountain. The pilot and a CAIC forecaster searched for a possible landing zone below the accident site, but could not find a suitable area. Additional rescuers ascended the avalanche path to meet the descending team. Snowmobiles assisted transport from the base of the mountain to a waiting ambulance. Skier 1 was initially stabilize in the ambulance, then transported by helicopter to Mercy Medical Center in Durango. Despite an involved and well-orchestrated rescue, Skier 1 died from injuries sustained in the avalanche.
The Kendall Mountain investigation video can be seen here.
As for the latest incident, the CAIC investigation will begin in earnest today.
Thus far, only a preliminary report has been posted.
The accident summary reads: "At about 15:00 hours Monday afternoon a backcountry rider was caught and killed in an avalanche south of Aspen, near Richmond Hill. The incident occurred below treeline on a west aspect slope."
Here's another photo from the scene, this one looking down the path of the avalanche:
More details are offered by the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, which received a call at about 3 p.m. on Monday, February 23, about an avalanche that had swept up two skiers.
The reporting person was one of the two — an injured skier who told dispatchers the slide had taken place "outside of the skiable boundary of Aspen Mountain in the Castle Creek Valley."
Members of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, Mountain Rescue Aspen and the PCSO rushed to the scene and were able to locate the body of the missing skier around 4 p.m. "at the bottom of a snow-covered chute approximately 9,400 feet" in altitude. He was pronounced dead at 5 p.m.
Recovery plans were being finalized yesterday evening, with efforts expected to get underway this morning.
The identity of the skier will be announced pending next-of-kin notification. However, we offer our sincere condolences to the friends, family and loved ones of this individual, and the others who've died in avalanches this season.
A final note from the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office: The PCSO "wishes to remind people to be extremely careful when planning trips into the backcountry. Always check current weather and snow conditions online and carry the appropriate recovery and survival tools. "