American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, La Plata Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1961

Colorado, La Plata Peak—On March 19, Karl Pfiffner (25), George Hurley (25), and Ron Bierstedt (25), climbed La Plata Peak (14,340 feet) by way of the Ellingwood Ridge. They turned back at about 13,000 feet because of the hour, and followed the ridge leading NNW; near the end of the ridge they dropped off towards La Plata Basin, on the west. They were going straight down a small, steep, open area just below timber line whan an avalanche struck them. All three were carried away. Hurley was swept only 20-30 feet and was stopped by a clump of small trees; he was almost buried in snow. Bierstedt was carried about 150 feet to near the tip of the slide; he was unhurt and could free himself easily as only his legs were buried. He went to help Hurley and dug him out in about 45 minutes. The two searched for Pfiffner but were unable to find him. The avalanche fell at about 5:30 p.m. At 6:30 p.m. Bierstedt left the accident scene to go down for help, while Hurley stayed and continued to search for Pfiffner as long as it was light. Bierstedt reached Mt. Elbert Lodge at 7:45 p.m. and gave the alarm.

Three rescue organizations responded: Lake County Rescue, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and the National Ski Patrol. Some difficulty was encountered in communications; phone lines were busy, the Forest Service did not help as promptly as it might have helped due to jurisdictional limitations, and there was delay in locating proper avalanche rescue equipment. Nevertheless, the first rescue party arrived at the accident scene at about 2:45 a.m. on March 20, and was soon joined by others.

A large snow slab still overhung the slide area and looked dangerous. Partly for this reason, no searching was attempted until dawn, about 6:00 a.m. Soon after the search began, Earl Gannog, of the National Ski Patrol, saw a small piece of snowshoe projecting from the snow and almost hidden by an overhanging piece of snow slab. The body was found and evacuated to the highway by 8:25 a.m.

Pfiffner was the only one of the three who was wearing snowshoes at the time of the slide.

Source: Harold F. Walton.

Analysis: Avalanche danger existed at time of accident. The route taken by the party on March 19 followed ridges where avalanche danger was minimal for the most part. Nevertheless, avalanche danger in the area was extreme. There had been several weeks of abnormally low temperatures and heavy snowfall.

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