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Avalanche, Loss of Control—Glissading, Poor Route Finding, Colorado, San Juan Mountains, Lookout Peak

AVALANCHE, LOSS OF CONTROI—GLISSADING, POOR ROUTE FINDING

Colorado, San Juan Mountains, Lookout Peak

I was mountain climbing with my husband, Edward W. Enlow, Jr. (38), when he had a fatal mountaineering accident on June 13, 1992. The following is a description of the accident.

We had decided to climb Lookout Peak, a 13,661 foot mountain in the San Juan mountain range near Ophir Pass in Colorado. We had read descriptions of the climb in various books, but we did not have a topographical map of the mountain. Soon after we started to climb, we were off trail and hiking up steep, snowy slopes toward a false summit. After we reached the false summit, we looked for a route to the true summit. That route led us over an exposed ridge with loose snow and then up a steep rock couloir on the north side of the mountain. We reached the summit at 1430, much later than we had anticipated when we started the climb. Since the skies were clear and sunny, Ed wasn’t concerned about the late ascent.

When we started the descent at 1445, the snow was quite soft. We decided to try to descend by the “standard” route, which was most likely covered in snow, but we could not find an easy way down. After descending 100 feet of steep rock on the south side of the mountain, Ed decided to attempt a seated glissade down a steep snow chute. He had assumed that the chute would be snow covered all the way down to gentler terrain about 500 feet below. However, when he started his glissade, a small avalanche followed him into the chute. I yelled out to him to get out of the chute since he didn’t see the avalanche behind him. He tried to self-arrest twice, without success, since he was caught in the swiftly moving snow. He then disappeared out of my sight.

I started to carefully descend down the same chute and saw exposed rocks below due to the avalanche having cleared away the loose snow. I also saw a cliff below me instead of a gradual slope. I had to find a different way down. Using extreme caution (while starting to go into shock at the unknown condition of my husband), I traversed across a couple of steep snow chutes, walked under a huge, cracked cornice, and descended a steep rock and snow gully. I saw his body below with his daypack about 20 feet away from his body. I reached his body about 30 minutes later. His arm was broken but there were no open wounds or external bleeding. There was no pulse or bleeding. The autopsy revealed that internal bleeding was the cause of death and that he had experienced a free fall which killed him instantly upon impact.

Analysis

Knowledge of dangerous snow conditions would help. Make sure the whole runout of a snow chute is visible before starting a glissade.

Climbers must never take a casual attitude toward mountains… We always have to respect the dangers of mountaineering, even after having climbed successfully for many years. (Source: Regina Pasquale)