The dads headed out early, leaving their families in the hut as they went to play in the powder.
They had skied all around the Markley Hut south of Aspen for two days, taking turns with their wives watching their young children in the hut. On Monday, Jan. 21, only one of the fathers and husbands would return and Aspen would mourn a beloved teacher.
Arin Trook, 48, was the second Colorado avalanche fatality of the season. The education director at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies was buried in a slide that eerily mirrored the avalanche that killed 40-year-old Longmont father Peter Marshall on Jan. 5 near Red Mountain Pass.
Both avalanches killed conscientious, risk-averse skiers who were equipped for — and aware of — avalanche dangers. Trook and his partner had spent the previous two days lapping gentle slopes around the hut. Marshall had spent the day before his death in a hut on Red Mountain Pass, taking an avalanche safety class. And both Marshall and Trook ventured onto slopes slightly steeper than 30 degrees, an incline where avalanche dangers rises, especially when facets near the ground weaken creating an unstable layer at the bottom of the snowpack.
The slope that carried Trook through a grove of trees was “only 4- or 5-degrees steeper than the terrain they had been skiing,” reads a detailed analysis of the fatal avalanche issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Tuesday.
“It may not seem much steeper, but in this case it made a very important difference,” reads the report prepared by respected avalanche forecaster Brian Lazar. “On some days, and with some avalanche problems, the difference between 30 degrees and 35 degrees might not be significant. However, it can be significant when dealing with a persistent slab avalanche problem.”
The threat of a persistent slab avalanche reaches across all of Colorado and the West this season, a symptom of weather cycles that create rotten layers that can step down to even weaker layers near the ground. The storms over the weekend of Jan. 19 and Jan. 20 prompted the CAIC to issue a Special Avalanche Advisory warning of persistent slabs avalanches through Monday Jan. 21.
“Avalanche conditions are dangerous. Backcountry travelers can easily trigger very large and deadly avalanches. Avalanches may break across terrain features and run long distances,” read the advisory, noting that in the previous 10 days, CAIC had fielded reports that 10 people had been caught in avalanches, 44 avalanches were triggered by backcountry travelers, and the agency had tracked more than 280 avalanches across the state. “Backcountry travel this weekend will require conservative decision making, cautious route finding, and careful snowpack and terrain evaluation,” the agency warned.
Trook’s partner was standing below when Trook began to descend and triggered an avalanche that spread several hundred feet across a ridge. The partner — neither he nor Trook were named in the report — used his beacon to find his friend and extricated him from the snow. Trook had lost one ski but his other telemark ski remained on his foot.
(Lazar said it was unclear if the unreleased telemark ski contributed to Trook’s burial, “but we do know that having things attached to your feet or hands increases the chances you get pulled deeper into the avalanche debris,” reads Lazar’s report. “It is generally safer to use releasable bindings, and to not use pole straps while traveling in the backcountry.”)
The partner performed CPR before dashing up to the hut and get help. He returned with Trook’s wife and continued CPR. A passing ski guide — also a volunteer with the Mountain Rescue Aspen — called for help. The efforts to revive Trook were unsuccessful.
The CAIC issues these detailed reports as tools for better understanding of avalanches and accidents. “We offer these comments in the hope that it will help people avoid future avalanche accidents,” Lazar wrote.
The number of avalanche fatalities across the West declined in the last four years. The downturn from 2008 to 2018 compared with 1998 to 2008 had avalanche safety educators hoping that an increased focus on avalanche safety was establishing itself in the backcountry ski and snowmobile community.
The 2018-19 season, however, has not started well. Six skiers and five snowmobilers have been killed avalanches in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. In addition to Trook, avalanches killed a skier and two snowmobilers in Montana, Idaho and Utah on Friday, Jan. 25.