Colorado, Little Bear Peak, Standard Hourglass Route
On January 10 around 1100, a male (22) and his sister (20) were climbing Little Bear Peak via the Standard West Ridge Hourglass Route. Weather conditions for several days had been mostly cloudy to partly cloudy, snowing (19-36 inches), and windy (out of the west and southwest, 8-41 mph). As the two climbers were traversing the south side of the West Ridge, just west of the base of the Hourglass Couloir, they triggered a large slab avalanche. The crown was approximately 500 feet across, a foot or more deep and the slide descended approximately 1000 vertical feet, including a drop over a 100-foot cliff. The male reported that his sister was eight feet behind him when he found himself “rag dolling” down the south- facing slope of the West Ridge. Before losing consciousness, he recalled going over the cliff.
The male awoke buried to his waist with a laceration to his forehead, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung. He was on the edge of a debris field in the cirque above Little Bear Lake approximately 1000 feet below where the avalanche began. His titanium ice ax’s adze had been snapped off and the pick had been bent 30 degrees from its original position. He called out for his sister, but there was no response. He dug himself out, and began searching for his sister. He probed the debris field with his ice axe for over an hour. With no sign of his sister, he decided to go for help.
He ascended the West Ridge and descended to their last camp at Lake Como. He reached the camp around sunset. On January 11, after regaining strength and sleeping for a short period, he descended the Lake Como trail on skis to the point where he acquired cell phone contact and called 911. At 0830, Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office dispatched the Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue team to search for a lost hiker. A command post was set-up at the Lake Como access trailhead. Because of deep snow, cold temperatures, and the potential for a short window of response time to the patient, SAR personnel requested Flight For Life helicopter support. Lifeguard Four was dispatched from Pueblo, Colorado.
At 1100, a two-man hasty team was flown to Lake Como from the Lake Como trailhead, and a three man hasty team was dispatched from the command post to ascend the access road on ATV’s until the snow depth stopped their progress. At Lake Como, the helicopter delivered hasty team observed a single set of tracks leading down the couloir used to access the West Ridge on Little Bear Peak. About the same time as the helicopter insertion, the ATV team made contact with the injured climber. He was evacuated via ATV to the command post where he was airlifted via Flight For Life to the San Luis Valley Medical Center in Alamosa.
Conditions over the next several days prevented search and recovery of the woman. Her remains were ultimately recovered on June 24, by a team of four Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue technicians and a dog handler and recovery dog provided by SARDOC (Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado).
Both subjects had technical alpine experience in Colorado, Alaska and South America. Just the previous spring, they had completed a successful summit of Denali together; however, this experience did not make them immune to the dangers that exist any time people enter potential avalanche terrain. At the hospital, the young man stated to a SAR interviewer that after the avalanche, the snow was “whumpfing” in the access couloir during his descent to Lake Como. Earlier in the morning before the slide, the snowpack was more stable as they ascended, but as they crossed over the ridge into the slabs that were affected by solar radiation and wind effects, they were unaware of the changes in the snow-pack’s stability or the potential danger of descending the access couloir later in the day. Neither subject had an avalanche beacon, probe or shovel with them; however, because of the massive scale of the slide and the depth of the deceased subject, none of these items would have changed the outcome. Avalanche terrain avoidance would have been the only method of mitigating this accident. (Source: Edited from a report submitted by Kevin Wright, President, Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue)