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Six Avalanche Deaths in Two Months: How They Happened

Colorado is in the midst of a tragic avalanche season, with six casualties from five slides in a span of less than two months this year. Given that March and April are two of the state's snowiest months, the danger has hardly passed — more avalanches caused traffic nightmares between Copper Mountain and Leadville, among other places, yesterday — and is described as historic.

In a March 7 conference call, state officials said that they've counted more than 2,000 avalanches this season, the vast majority of them non-fatal. But several have been very high-profile, including avalanches that have roared across heavily traveled stretches of Interstate 70. State officials rate current avalanche risk as extreme and suggest it could stay that way for months.

There are no shortage of statistics demonstrating how that translates to issues for those who venture into the backcountry. In January alone, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center documented 42 avalanches that were "close calls," involving 57 people in the state. The amount of people caught in avalanches that month was almost three times higher than during the same month in recent years.

While the six deaths is only half the total reached in 1993, the most lethal year for avalanches in Colorado between 1951 and 2016, the sum has already matched or exceeded figures from more than forty of those years. See the graphic below:

As for why this season has been so bad, Colorado Avalanche Information Center deputy director Brian Lazar cited multiple factors for a story we wrote in February, including "the way the winter's unfolded. We had early-season snow — snowfall in October and November that didn't melt away. It sat there long enough under some early-season dry conditions to turn into a weak layer of snow, which made for a poor foundation for the snowpack."

Additionally, he continued, "across much of the state, it's been a really snowy winter. That built thick layers of snow on top of this weak foundation. And when you're loading weak layers at the bottom of the snowpack with heavy snow on top, that's conducive for creating avalanches. When you build any kind of structure, you don't want to have a weak foundation, and with snowpack, it's really no different."

While this scenario is more heightened this season, it's hardly unprecedented. In Lazar's view, "Colorado has seen more fatalities than other states due to both the nature of our snowpack, which tends to produce widespread weak layers, and the fact that we have large swaths of snow-covered mountains in close proximity to urban centers."

The lure of these magnificent features has led to an increase in those visiting the high country, Lazar pointed out. The greater rate of visitation has plenty to do with the rising number of dangerous slides.

Here's more about each of the fatal incidents, with excerpts from Colorado Avalanche Information Center narratives and links to the complete reports.

The CAIC caption to this photo reads: "Looking up at the first avalanche triggered by the group on January 5. The yellow labels show the approximate locations of the skiers at the end of the first avalanche. Skier 2 was buried outside of the frame of this image."
The CAIC caption to this photo reads: "Looking up at the first avalanche triggered by the group on January 5. The yellow labels show the approximate locations of the skiers at the end of the first avalanche. Skier 2 was buried outside of the frame of this image."

January 16, 2019

Location: Upper Senator Beck Basin, northwest of Red Mountain Pass
Time: 2:41 PM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 6 backcountry tourers caught, 1 partially buried, 1 buried and killed
Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
Primary Travel Mode: Ski
Location Setting: Backcountry

This accident involved two avalanches. The first was a hard slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by the group of skiers, medium-sized relative to the path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure or kill a person. The group triggered the avalanche near a shallow, rocky outcrop. It likely broke on a buried layer of near-surface facets that developed between storms during the first few days of the year. The avalanche stepped down to deeper weak layers near the ground, entraining the entire season’s snowpack. The face of the crown ranged from twelve inches to 54 inches deep. The avalanche released on a south-southeast-facing slope around 32 degrees in steepness.

A crack from the first avalanche ran through the snow, releasing a second avalanche (remote trigger) on a connected east-facing slope. The second avalanche was a hard slab, medium-sized relative to path.... Investigators estimated that the average depth of the crown face was 36 inches. The avalanche released on a slope around 35 degrees in steepness....

The avalanche caught all six skiers. When the avalanche caught Skier 1, his ski bindings released and he fell forward, traveling head downhill on his belly. He was under the snow at times, but rose to the surface as the debris stopped. He lost both skis and one ski pole. He was carried to the bottom of the slope.

When the first avalanche stopped, Skier 1 was partially buried — not critical (his head was not under avalanche debris). He stood up and saw a second avalanche coming at him from an adjacent slope. The debris from the second avalanche ran over the debris of the first avalanche, but stopped short of Skier 1.

The first avalanche caught Skier 2 and carried him to the bottom of the slope. The rest of the group was preoccupied with their own involvement in the slide, so we do not know Skier 2's condition at the end of the first avalanche. The second avalanche overran Skier 2’s position in the debris of the first avalanche.

The avalanche carried Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 between 15 and 20 feet downhill. The debris around them remained in large blocks, several feet thick and up to 12 feet wide. Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 stood up in the blocks of debris and looked around. They saw the second avalanche overrunning the debris of the first avalanche, but could not see Skiers 1 and 2....

This accident is especially troublesome as it involved a group of well-trained and well-equipped people in an avalanche safety class. This was a class for people with previous avalanche education and some experience in avalanche terrain (AIARE 2). There was an instructor in this group whose role was to teach the group how to understand, observe, and analyze the avalanche hazard and navigate through avalanche terrain. This accident is more complex than most because it involved a relatively large group of people, in a very structured environment, executing a detailed trip plan. In addition to the group’s plan, the instructor made a plan for the course based on his knowledge of the area and current conditions. This experience included multiple days in the field earlier that week, working in the area since mid-December, and work in the area each year for the last six. The instructor had additional local information at his disposal including information exchanges with other guides, avalanche safety operations, and recreationalists in the area.

The CAIC caption on this photo reads: "A distant image of the slope that avalanched. The red arrow points to the face of the crown.The skiers entered the slope to the left of the arrow, below the large rock outcrop."
The CAIC caption on this photo reads: "A distant image of the slope that avalanched. The red arrow points to the face of the crown.The skiers entered the slope to the left of the arrow, below the large rock outcrop."

January 21, 2019

Location: Green Mountain, Express Creek
Time: 10:15 AM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 1 backcountry tourer caught, buried, and killed
Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
Primary Travel Mode: Ski
Location Setting: Backcountry

This was a soft slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by a skier, medium-sized relative to the path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person, and break some small trees. The skier triggered the avalanche near the skier's right flank, but the avalanche quickly propagated across and up the slope, breaking 150 to 200 feet above the descending skier.

The avalanche broke on a buried layer of near-surface facets that developed between storms in mid-December. In some places, it stepped down to deeper weak layers near the ground. The face of the crown ranged from 24 inches to 48 inches deep. The avalanche broke approximately 400 feet wide and ran around 400 vertical feet (600 linear feet). The avalanche released on a north-northeast-facing slope around 35 degrees in steepness....

The avalanche quickly propagated several hundred feet across the slope and the crown released approximately 150 to 200 feet above Skier 2, near where Skier 1 was standing. Skier 1 yelled "avalanche" but wasn’t sure if Skier 2 heard him. Skier 1 lost sight of Skier 2 as the debris began flowing down the slope to were the terrain was a little steeper. Skier 2 was still upright on his skis when Skier 1 lost sight of him....

Skier 2 was wearing non-releasable telemark bindings. One ski did come off in the course of the avalanche, but he was buried with one ski still attached. It is impossible to know whether this contributed to his burial, or increased his burial depth (approximate burial depth was 150cm), but we do know that having things attached to your feet or hands increases the chances you get pulled deeper into the avalanche debris. It is generally safer to use releasable bindings, and to not use pole straps while traveling in the backcountry.

The CAIC caption on this photo reads: "Looking from the debris up towards the start zone of an avalanche that caught and killed two skiers on February 16th, 2019. The dotted blue line shows the location of the summer trail that the two skiers were following."
The CAIC caption on this photo reads: "Looking from the debris up towards the start zone of an avalanche that caught and killed two skiers on February 16th, 2019. The dotted blue line shows the location of the summer trail that the two skiers were following."

February 16, 2019

Location: Pearl Pass Road, Brush Creek Drainage
Time: 12:00 AM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 2 backcountry tourers caught, buried and killed
Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
Primary Travel Mode: Ski

On Saturday, February 16, 2019, two backcountry skiers were reported overdue in the Brush Creek drainage, near the town of Crested Butte. The report was made just prior to 8:00 p.m.

Crested Butte Search and Rescue sent a hasty team into the field. They discovered tracks into fresh avalanche debris. They did not find tracks exiting the slide but did find faint beacon signals in the slide area. Shortly after midnight, CB-SAR group determined conditions were too dangerous to continue search and rescue operations.

On Sunday, February 17, 2019, a team of six Crested Butte Search and Rescue members were air lifted to the scene by helicopter. An additional team of 5-6 members entered the area by ground. Among the rescue members were representatives of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and the Crested Butte Avalanche Center along with three Crested Butte Mountain Resort Ski Patrollers whose primary objective was to ensure the area was safe for recovery efforts.

The rescue team quickly located the bodies of the two men as beacon signals were transmitting. At approximately 3:00 p.m. the bodies had been transported by the team to the helicopter landing zone at Brush Creek.

The CAIC caption on this photo reads: "This image shows the avalanche debris in the lower portion of the runout area. Bear Creek February 19, 2019."
The CAIC caption on this photo reads: "This image shows the avalanche debris in the lower portion of the runout area. Bear Creek February 19, 2019."

February 19, 2019

Location: Bear Creek near Telluride
Time: 12:00 AM (Estimated)
Summary Description: 1 skier caught, fully buried and killed
Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
Primary Travel Mode: Ski

On Tuesday, February 19, 2019, a backcountry skier was reported overdue in the Bear Creek drainage, near the town of Telluride. The skier skinned up the Bear Creek trail from town. A concerned family member made the report that he was missing around 4:20 p.m.

San Miguel County Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue, along with members of the Telluride Ski Patrol, sent a search team with two search dogs to the area. Deputies learned that a rider triggered an avalanche earlier in the day in the Temptation area in the Bear Creek drainage. The search team saw the large debris pile from this avalanche. They searched for approximately two hours, but they could not locate the missing skier before nightfall.

The search resumed on the morning February 20. They located the buried skier in the avalanche debris with probe poles. The avalanche broke around 75 feet wide on an east-facing slope at an elevation of approximately 11,800 ft. It ran 2000 vertical feet to the valley floor. It deposited debris approximately 1000 feet long, 100 feet wide and up to 30 feet deep.

The CAIC caption on this image reads: "Image of an avalanche that buried and killed a skier. The red X marks the approximate burial location. The blue outlines mark the extent of the two avalanches. The avalanche on the looker's right released sympathetically from the avalanche on the left. Photo courtesy Telluride Helitrax."EXPAND
The CAIC caption on this image reads: "Image of an avalanche that buried and killed a skier. The red X marks the approximate burial location. The blue outlines mark the extent of the two avalanches. The avalanche on the looker's right released sympathetically from the avalanche on the left. Photo courtesy Telluride Helitrax."

March 3, 2019

Location: Near Trout Lake, Lizard Head Pass
Time: Unknown
Summary Description: 1 backcountry skier caught, buried and killed
Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
Primary Travel Mode: Ski

On Sunday, March 3, 2019, a backcountry skier was reported overdue near the Matterhorn nordic trail system north of Trout Lake, near Lizard Head Pass. Two members of San Miguel County Search and Rescue were flown in via helicopter and spotted a large avalanche and debris pile, but it was late in the day and there was still risk from further avalanches. They planned for a search and rescue mission the following day.

On Monday, March 4, San Miguel Search and Rescue and the Telluride Ski Patrol sent search teams. Search teams concentrated on a large pile of avalanche debris east of Priest Lake in an area locally know as Base Camp 1. Search dogs alerted, and rescuers confirmed the body of the missing skier using probes. He was buried approximately 1 meter deep.

The avalanche appeared to be triggered by the skier as indicated by the visible ski track. This was a soft slab avalanche that broke around 300 feet wide and ran approximately 600 vertical feet. It released on a south-facing slope at around 11,250 feet. It was very small relative to the path, but large enough to bury a person.

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