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Avalanche, Climbing Alone, Late Start, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Tyndall Glacier


Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Tyndall Glacier

On November 9, 1991, at 1400, Dan Hepburn (26) triggered an avalanche while ascending Tyndall Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hepburn was only 40 feet from the top of the route when the entire upper glacier released, carrying him an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 feet. Hepburn was buried waist deep and positioned upright in the avalanche debris. He sustained a fractured arm. Hepburn was able to extract himself from the debris and hike out four miles to the trailhead, where he notified the park and then drove himself to the Estes Park Medical Center.


Hepburn was fortunate in surviving this event, and should be commended for his successful efforts at self-help. Had his injuries been more severe or had he been unable to 'extract himself from the avalanche debris, the results could have been fatal, as Hepburn was climbing alone. One should keep in mind that early season snowfalls in the Rockies often take much time to bond sufficiently to the icy surfaces left over from the end of the summer months. Thus it is common for the avalanche conditions on permanent glaciers to be quite high in the autumn. Slab conditions are generally most unstable during the warmest part of the day, which is when Hepburn was climbing. (Source: Jim Detterline, Ranger, RMNP)

(Editor’s Note: Chief Park Ranger Joseph R. Evans reported the following in his cover letter accompanying the reports from RMNP:

Rocky Mountain National Park’s search and rescue team responded to a total of 267 callouts (71 missions, 196 incidents) in 1991. For your information, we define a mission as any SAR activity requiring response beyond the trailhead, or any activity involving premium pay or more than $50 expense to the park. An incident is a minor SAR activity occurring during normal working hours and not meeting the criteria of SAR mission, or an off-duty incident resulting in not more than $50 expense. Major SAR missions involve expenditures of $500 or more. In 1991, there were 19 major missions, 42% of which involved technical climbers in trouble. Of the 267 total callouts, 27.0% were for overdue parties, 71.9% were for emergency medical services, and 1.1% were for stranded parties.

Of the 267 total callouts, 32 (12.0%) involved technical climbers. Of these 32 callouts, 12 were missions and 20 were incidents. There were 19 overdue parties, 11 medical responses, and two stranded parties. Three of the overdue incidents were quite significant in that they involved overnight responses, lots of manpower and other SAR resources, and large expenditures of money. Interesting and unusual for the year are two reports of accidents involving technical rescuers in practice session.

An additional comment is that one “overdue” party was cited by the Park Rangers because of their negligence in not following their itinerary and not returning to the trailhead to recontact family and park officials of their new plans. Failure to do this resulted in an extensive search effort.)