Saturday’s avalanche in the San Juan Mountains’ Senator Beck Basin, northwest of Red Mountain Pass near Silverton, swept six students of an advanced avalanche-safety class down the bowl, killing a Longmont man who was buried under 8 feet of snow.
The team found Peter Marshall, a 40-year-old skier who was participating in Silverton Avalanche School’s three-day, Level 2 avalanche class based out of the St. Paul Lodge & Hut, but was unable to revive him. His death marks the first avalanche fatality of the 2018-19 season.
Marshall’s death is the first for the respected avalanche school, which formed in 1962. Four years ago almost to the day — Jan. 6, 2015 — the school lost a former intern, Olivia Buchanan, in an avalanche on Kendall Mountain above Silverton. Buchanan, a 23-year-old college student who was studying snow science in Montana, was skiing with a friend — not with the ski school — when she was buried in an avalanche after a late December storm deposited more than 40 inches of new snow on the peaks around Silverton.
Southern Colorado’s San Juans boast one of the most avalanche-prone snowpacks in the continental United States. On Jan. 3, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center noted particularly dangerous conditions in that region’s mountains, with new snow falling on a faceted snowpack that had weakened during a sustained dry spell. The agency said it had documented more than 70 avalanches — 11 triggered by backcountry travelers — in the previous week. In the Northern San Juans, surrounding Red Mountain Pass, the agency fielded reports of 19 avalanches in the first week of this month, with at least five triggered by backcountry travelers.
The unstable base layer of snow on the ground in the San Juans saw a series of big storms in late December and last week, piling several feet of fresh snow on top of that slide-prone layer that elevated the risk of avalanches. The previous two seasons — with a thin snowpack last year and a deep snowpack the year before — had seen a somewhat-lessened avalanche danger, with a more stable base layer.
The last four seasons across the West have seen a declining number of avalanche fatalities. Before Saturday’s avalanche in Senator Beck Basin, the 11 avalanche deaths in Colorado since 2014 marked the lowest four-year tally since the 1970s, despite growing numbers of skiers and snowmobilers traversing backcountry avalanche terrain.
The decline is good news, but avalanche forecasters are hesitant to celebrate, pointing to a growing number of incidents involving skiers with extensive experience in the backcountry. So far this season, CAIC reports that 12 skiers have been caught in eight avalanches.
With early snowfall followed by weeks without any snow, this season in southern Colorado is a return to “your typically sketchy San Juan snowpack,” said CAIC forecaster Spencer Logan, who is investigating Saturday’s fatal avalanche and issued a preliminary report on Monday.
“The San Juans are notorious for having challenging avalanche problems, but it’s easy to forget that when we have a couple of years that are more straightforward,” said Logan, who could not discuss the avalanche investigation until his team compiled a final report based on interviews and snowpack analysis. “This season’s early-season snow was followed by long dry spells that allowed everything to facet, creating a very weak base.”
Marshall was part of an advanced class following a freshly revamped curriculum set by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, or AIARE. This year, the national education group split its curriculum into two tracks, with a focus on educating recreational skiers, as well as backcountry users pursuing a career on snow. The idea was to educate a broader range of skiers, not just those who were considering a professional life in avalanche terrain.
Marshall was on the second day of a Level 2 recreational course for skiers who had already taken AIARE’s introductory Level 1 and avalanche-rescue class.
The three-day, $650 course — based out of a backcountry hut atop Red Mountain Pass — was designed to improve avalanche-hazard evaluation through analysis of snowpack and weather and to hone route-finding skills and learn complex rescue techniques.
The AIARE course was offered through Silverton Avalanche School, one of the most venerable avalanche-education schools in Colorado. The school, which has no connection to the Silverton Mountain ski area, since 1962 has trained more than 4,000 avalanche students on recognizing hazards, studying snow stability and conducting rescues.
Jim Donovan, the school’s director and one of Colorado’s most respected avalanche educators and emergency responders, said Marshall’s death marked the first in his school’s 56-year history.
Silverton Avalanche School issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the accident “impacts all of us and our deepest condolences go out to the family.”
“Our number one priority at this time is ensuring the safety and well being of the family of the victim and the students and staff involved in the accident,” reads the statement posted on the school’s website.
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