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Avalanche, Euphoria From Good Weather and Perfect Backcountry Skiing, Not Heeding Indications of Instability, Party Separated, Colorado, San Juan Mountains

AVALANCHE, EUPHORIA FROM GOOD WEATHER AND PERFECT BACKCOUNTRY SKIING, NOT HEEDING INDICATIONS OF INSTABILITY, PARTY SEPARATED

Colorado, San Juan Mountains

Four of us from New England were skiing powder gullies and open trees below peak 12,311 in the Sneffels Range in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. We had spent two nights in nearby Last Dollar hut where we met two skiers from Utah. February 25 began clear and cold as all six of us skinned up the ridge. The day warmed into perfect skiing weather by mid morning. With a blue sky and 30 to 40 cm of well-settled powder, conditions could not be better. We had completed two runs each by noon, in the relative safety of so-called Gully 1A. This was recommended by local skiers. Its pitch did not exceed 15 degrees.

On the first run, we skied one at a time and stayed near the trees. We were concerned about avalanches. A shovel shear test the day before indicated a weak layer at 50 cm. The avalanche forecast was MODERATE (three days earlier). However, our concern for avalanches lessened as the day progressed. In the afternoon the group had divided into pairs. Rob and I were standing in a safe location at the top of Gully No. 1A when we glimpsed Bob and Steve entering Gully No. 2 in search of new powder. We paused to discuss possible hazards.

We were staring at the headwall to the northeast just above Gully No. 2 when it fractured sequentially in three places, zippering across the entire wall. We yelled, “AVALANCHE!” but no one heard. We were shocked as we knew all four people below were exposed to the danger. We heard no calls from below. Time 1350. We discussed alternative search routes and decided to descend 1A and intersect the slide lower down. This was the slowest descent I have ever made… time seemed to stand still. Part way down we heard Sally calling and knew someone was safe.

We were all properly equipped with transceivers, shovels, and probe poles. All were experienced backcountry skiers. The proper steps for self-rescue raced through my mind as we descended. By the time we were within yelling distance, we learned only Steve Gordon (39) was missing. Bob had been able to ski out of the avalanche path. Sally and Dave had just completed their run and found themselves just on the edge of the run out zone.

By the time we reached the bottom, Bob had located Steve's “beep” and the group was digging. Steve was buried for less than 20 minutes under less than a meter of debris. However, excavating him was very difficult as his body and equipment were entangled with a tree. Attempts to resuscitate the victim with CPR were unsuccessful. The body was removed the next day by helicopter under directions of the San Miguel Sheriff's Department. Cause of death: asphyxiation and massive head trauma.

The side path was estimated to 500 meters long and 250 meters vertical. The fracture zone was 120 meters wide by one m at its initiation point (an unseen pillow on the steeper west face of the bowl). However, most of the fracture wall was merely 20 to 30 cm high. The release was said to be “skier triggered from below.”

Analysis

(1) Our test pit was dug on an aspect equivalent to what we skied, not that of the slope across the other side of the bowl. (2) We were skiing below a slope exceeding 30. (3) The euphoria of beautiful weather, scenery, and turns in perfect powder overshadowed caution after several runs. (4) Local advice and the avalanche forecast were weighted too heavily in the light of our field observation. (5) The prevailing wind had been northwest for several days, leaving the northwest facing bowl relatively safe. Apparently, a northeast eddy had windloaded a small, unnoticed area of slab on the far wall. (6) The victim was skiing with a heavy pack loaded with camera equipment. Possibly this reduced his mobility. (7) The skiers had too much separation to hear warning calls. (8) On our upclimb along the edge of the woods, “whoomp” sounds gave a strong indication of instability. (Source: Jed Eliades—53)

(Editor’s Note: A fund in memory of Steve Gordon has been established by his friends. Contributions received are designated for the AAC Safety Committee.)