American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Failure to Follow Advice, Inadequate Equipment, Poor Position, Inexperience, Colorado, Pyramid Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

AVALANCHE, FAILURE TO FOLLOW ADVICE, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, POOR POSITION, INEXPERIENCE

Colorado, Pyramid Peak

On January 28, a party of four climbers headed up Maroon Creek Road south of Aspen during a heavy avalanche cycle, following a major snow storm. The road is not plowed during the winter, but is used by a commercial snowmobile operation. Due to the avalanche danger, snowmobilers were not using the road at the time; it is exposed to numerous avalanche runouts. The climbing party encountered an employee of the snowmobile operation who advised them of the avalanche hazard. On the group’s approach to 14,018- foot Pyramid Peak the climbers snowshoed over several large, fresh avalanche debris piles lying across the road. After snowshoeing in approximately eight miles, the party passed from the road into the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness and began an ascent of the steep, northwest facing side of the glacial valley, toward the amphitheater at the base of the north face of the peak. This ascent was begun in darkness around 1930. Partway up the valley’s side, the climbers, still in snowshoes, triggered an avalanche estimated to be 300 feet wide with a three-foot deep crown. The avalanche traveled approximately 1,400 vertical feet to the valley floor, carrying one member of the team over a cliff. The other climbers carried no shovels or avalanche beacons and were not able to locate the lost climber. The buried body of the climber was located by searchers three weeks later.

Analysis

These climbers were from southern Europe and had experience climbing in the Alps. During discussions with the surviving climbers, rescuers learned the group assumed that Colorado’s alpine snowpack would behave in the more stable manner they were accustomed to encountering in the maritime climate of the southern Alps. Consequently, they had discounted the evidence of avalanche instability around them, and the verbal warning they had received. They had been warned by acquaintances in Denver to avoid this peak, but their lack of understanding of the dynamics of objective winter hazard in the region, combined with their determination to climb the peak despite evidence indicating they should not proceed, suggest that the result may not have been easily prevented. Although the team carried no avalanche rescue equipment, doing so probably would have made no difference to the deceased member, who apparently died from multiple trauma suffered during the slide. (Source: From Mountain Rescue- Aspen, Inc., compiled by Hal Clifford)

(Editor’s Note: While these victims were snowshoeing as opposed to climbing, the conditions encountered required mountaineering expertise.)

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