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Colorado's Ten Avalanche Deaths This Season So Far: What Happened

Members of the San Juan Search and Rescue team responding to the avalanche that killed Durango residents Dr. Jeff Paffendorf and Albert Perry in December 2020.
Members of the San Juan Search and Rescue team responding to the avalanche that killed Durango residents Dr. Jeff Paffendorf and Albert Perry in December 2020.
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This winter is on the cusp of becoming Colorado's deadliest avalanche season in recorded history. There have already been ten fatalities, second only to the twelve avalanche deaths in 1993 — the most since 1950, when the state started tracking the data. The two most recent casualties took place in separate incidents on Valentine's Day, February 14.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center meticulously documents such slides, whether they result in a tragedy or not. And while each has individual characteristics, there's been some common ground this season: Each involved either a persistent slab or soft slab avalanche, in which a cohesive layer of snow was released in the middle to upper snowpack. And the vast majority of the victims have been first-rate skiers or others experienced with outdoor activities, all overwhelmed by natural circumstances beyond their control.

"Dangerous conditions exist," the CAIC warns. "You can trigger avalanches that break at the ground on a variety of slopes from west through northeast to southeast. In these areas, recent winds drifted snow to create thick slabs 1 to 2 feet deep. The danger is greatest in the western portion of the zone, where more snow has fallen over the last week."

The state agency encourages people to "treat any steep slope where you see evidence of recent wind loading as suspect. Obvious signs of recent wind loading are smooth rounded pillows of snow, cracking and collapsing in the surface snow, and small drifts on the lee side of ridges or trees. Investigate all steep slopes carefully before riding. If you trigger an avalanche today, it can be large and dangerous."

Here are the CAIC reports, along with additional information, on the seven avalanches that have resulted in deaths this season: One killed three people, another took two lives, and the rest involved single fatalities.

December 18, 2020

Location: Near Ohio Pass, Anthracite Range
Time: 12:30 PM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 1 backcountry skier caught, buried, and killed
Avalanche Comments: "This was a soft slab avalanche triggered by a skier. The avalanche was small relative to the path and destructive enough to injure, bury, or kill a person. The avalanche failed on an old layer of faceted snow.... The crown face of the avalanche was 3 to 7 feet deep, 400 feet wide, and the debris ran about 400 feet. At the crown of the avalanche the faceted snow layer was three to seven feet below the snowpack surface. One hundred vertical feet down slope from the crown face, the snowpack was shallower, not wind affected, and the weak layer was only two feet from the surface. This was a Persistent Slab avalanche."

Victim: Jeff “Schnoid” Schneider
Dubbed a snow-safety pioneer by the Aspen Daily News, Schneider is referred to in the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report as Skier 1. According to the CAIC, he was "a very experienced backcountry skier. He also ski patrolled for over forty years, only recently retiring from the job. Skier 1 often traveled by himself. With the amount of experience that Skier 1 had, it is safe to say that he knew the increased risk of traveling alone and accepted that risk. He was wearing an avalanche transceiver and was carrying a shovel and probe. Skier 1’s transceiver did not help him survive this accident, but it did help the rescue party conduct a swift recovery and prevent a large and extended recovery effort. From the timeline of the accident, Skier 1 could have been buried for as long as one hour before being recovered."

December 19, 2020

Location: North Face of Battleship, southeast of Ophir
Time: Unknown
Summary Description: 2 backcountry skiers caught, buried and killed
Avalanche Comments: "This was a soft slab avalanche triggered by the group of skiers. The avalanche was small relative to the path and destructive enough to injure, bury, or kill a person. The avalanche failed on a 15 cm thick layer of faceted snow (SS-ASu-R2-D2.5-O). The crown face of the avalanche was 12 to 20 inches deep and about 700 feet wide. At the crown of the avalanche, the most recent snowfall sat above a firm, wind-stiffened surface that developed during a strong wind event on December 15. Several hundred vertical feet below the crown face, the snowpack was not wind affected, the weak layer was softer, and the slab was more cohesive. This was a Persistent Slab avalanche .There were two avalanches in the main bowl to the east that released sympathetically to the the fatal avalanche."

Victims: Dr. Jeff Paffendorf and Albert Perry
Both residents of Durango, Paffendorf and Perry are referred to as Skiers 1 and 2 in the CAIC narrative. They're said to have been "very experienced backcountry travelers. The three friends who found the bodies were likewise experienced. The three rescuers were willing to accept a level of risk that was not appropriate for Search and Rescue. While they found the bodies hours before Search and Rescue would have, the swifter discovery did not change the outcome of the accident."

December 26, 2020

Location: First Creek, north of Berthoud Pass
Time: 3:00 PM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 1 backcountry skier caught, buried, and killed
Avalanche Comments: "This was a soft slab avalanche, triggered by a skier, relatively small for the path, and not large enough to bury and kill a person without the terrain trap it ran through. The avalanche broke to the ground. It was a Persistent Slab avalanche."

Victim: Dariusz Krol
The Boulder County resident "was alone and no one witnessed the avalanche," the reports points out, adding that when he didn't reach the First Creek trailhead, where his companions expected to meet him, they called 911 at around 4:15 p.m. on the 26th. As a result, "most of the rescue occurred in the dark, which limited the rescuers’ ability to see the start zone and ski tracks in the upper part of the path. It began to snow during the rescue, and there were seven inches of new snow the following morning when CAIC investigators visited the site. All of these factors limit our ability to describe the events leading up to the avalanche." However, the report adds, "the snowpack in the area was exceptionally weak."

The Grand County Search and Rescue team called to action after an avalanche that killed a thus-far-unidentified snowmobiler on February 14, 2021.
The Grand County Search and Rescue team called to action after an avalanche that killed a thus-far-unidentified snowmobiler on February 14, 2021.

February 1, 2021

Location: The Nose, Middle Fork Mineral Creek southeast of Ophir
Time: 3:20 PM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 4 backcountry tourers caught, 1 partially buried, 3 buried and killed
Avalanche Comments: "This was a soft slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by a group of skiers. The avalanche was medium sized relative to the path and large enough to injure, bury, or kill a person. The avalanche ran into a narrow gully, where the debris was more than 20 feet deep in places. The avalanche broke on a layer of faceted snow buried on January 22 (about 18 inches below the snow surface on February 1). As the avalanche propagated up the slope it broke into depth hoar at the ground in the steep and rocky areas and in portions of the gully. The avalanche propagated around a ridge terrain feature and ran on slopes facing northeast to east to southeast. The crown face of the avalanche was two to three feet deep and over five feet at the deepest point. The avalanche was up to 1000 feet wide and ran 1500 vertical feet. It was a Persistent Slab avalanche. Two smaller avalanches released sympathetically on similar aspects near treeline."

Victims: Adam Palmer, Seth Bossung and Andy Jessen
Jessen, the owner of Bonfire Brewing, is remembered in this Westword post. Jessen, Palmer, Bossung and another companion, are referred to as Riders 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the CAIC narrative, which reveals that "Rider 4 described the avalanche as two waves. The first wave slowly pulled him into the gully, but he was able to stay on his feet. Thinking there was enough snow to bury him if he fell over, he deployed the avalanche airbag on his backpack. After the snow stopped, he was standing in the gully. Seconds later a larger wave of snow hit him from behind. Rider 4 immediately lost his skis and poles. He was engulfed in snow and tumbled violently. 'It felt like I was in a river and I was fully under the snow for approximately 15 to 25 seconds,' Rider 4 explained, and was 'moving very fast a significant way down the gully.' When the avalanche stopped, Rider 4 was buried in the debris with his head under the snow, but a portion of his airbag was visible on the surface (partially buried-critical). Riders 1, 2, and 3 were completely buried in the avalanche debris."

February 4, 2021

Location: Marvin’s West, East Vail backcountry southeast of Vail
Time: 11:10 AM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 2 sidecountry skiers caught, 1 buried and killed
Avalanche Comments: "This avalanche occurred in an area locally known as Marvin’s West or Big Marvin. Marvin’s West is a steep, east-facing slope below treeline which is dissected by two cliff bands in the avalanche start zone. This was a soft slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by a skier. It was medium-size relative to the path and produced enough destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person. It broke into old snow layers. The avalanche broke about 2 to 3 feet deep, 700 feet wide, and ran about 1000 vertical feet."

Victim: John "Johnny Tsunami" Kuo
Known as a gifted skier among his friends in Vail, Kuo and a companion are called Skiers 1 and 2 by the CAIC. The pair "hiked east for about thirty minutes to an area locally known as Benchmark at an elevation of approximately 11,800 feet. Then they descended along the ridgeline to the north to the top of a large open bowl locally known as Marvin’s West or Big Marvin. They arrived at the top of the bowl around 10:55 a.m. Skier 1 skied down through a series of cliff bands to a bench about 800 vertical feet below the ridge and waited for Skier 2. ... She had skied about 300 vertical feet down to a narrow opening through a cliff band when she triggered a large avalanche that broke above her. She tried to escape to the trees on the skier’s right side. She managed to stay upright and came to a stop on the apron below the cliff band buried to her knees in avalanche debris." She subsequently discovered Kuo "buried 2.5 to 3 feet deep. Skier 2 cleared the snow from around Skier 1’s head and shoulders. He was not breathing."

February 14, 2021 (Incident 1)

Location: Near Rollins Pass, east of Fraser
Time: Unknown
Summary Description: 1 snowmobiler caught, killed
Preliminary comments: "A snowmobiler was caught and killed in an avalanche west of Rollins Pass. The avalanche occurred on an east-facing, above treeline slope of Mount Epworth. When the avalanche stopped, the snowmobiler was buried underneath his sled on Pumphouse Lake."

Victim: Michael Westall of Parker

February 14, 2021

Location: Near Mount Trelease, north of Loveland Pass
Time: 9:30 AM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 1 backcountry tourer caught, partially buried-critical, and killed
Preliminary comments: "A backcountry snowboarder traveling alone was caught, buried and killed in an avalanche. Searcher and Rescue personnel found the tourer buried with a deployed avalanche airbag. Part of the airbag was visible in the avalanche debris, but the tourer's head was covered (partial burial-critical). The avalanche occurred around 9:30 a.m. It ran on an east facing slope above treeline, on a terrain feature known as Pat's Knob, elevation 12304 east of Mount Trelease."

Victim: David Heide

The CAIC statement about both February 14 victims reads: "Our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of the person involved."

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