A 47-year-old man was killed Tuesday in a large avalanche near Telluride triggered by snowboarders on a slope above him, authorities say, becoming Colorado’s fifth snow-slide death of the 2018-19 season.
Salvador Garcia-Atance, who was backcountry skiing on a well-traveled trail above Telluride, was the third man killed in a four-day period following heavy snowfall across the high country.
“This accident is especially tragic because this person didn’t trigger the avalanche,” said Ethan Greene, who leads the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Authorities say Garcia-Atance was reported missing on Tuesday afternoon after setting out on a backcountry trip, skinning from the valley floor in Telluride up the mellow trail heading into the Bear Creek drainage, prompting a search team from the Telluride Resort ski patrol to scour the area.
After two hours and with nightfall looming, the team couldn’t find anyone. On Wednesday morning, search crews returned to the area and found Garcia-Atance after using poles to probe the debris field.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports the slide broke 75-feet wide and ran 2,000 vertical feet. The debris field was 30-feet deep and 100-feet wide.
“Of course this is not the outcome any of us were hoping for and on behalf of myself and all of us involved in this mission, we extend our sincerest condolences to Mr. Garcia-Atance’s family,” San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said in a written statement.
Officials believe the slide happened between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Tuesday in a couloir.
Greene said it’s unusual that someone is killed in a backcountry avalanche they didn’t trigger.
“That’s different than the usual accidents that we have,” he told The Colorado Sun. “That’s something with more and more people in the backcountry we are worried about. It’s especially important in a year like this (with so much snowfall) to think about who’s around you and if you’re putting somebody else at risk.”
The San Miguel Sheriff’s Office tweeted late Tuesday that the slide poured into Bear Creek from somewhere around Temptation Bowl, which borders Telluride ski area but is separated by a boundary rope preventing access. Temptation Bowl has been the location of several avalanche fatalities dating back to the late 1980s.
The sheriff office’s tweet said the slide appeared to originate near Tempter Chute, just below the Telluride ski area boundary and the slide was “believed to be caused by snowboarders skiing off the Telluride ski area into the Bear Creek Preserve.”
“We certainly have talked with them and the investigation on their access and location is something we are looking at,” said San Miguel Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Susan Lilly.
Greene said a final report on the Telluride slide should be out in about a week. A press release by the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday said Garcia-Atance’s death is under investigation.
“We’ve been trying to warn people about the conditions and, you know, the large number of close calls we saw in January and the potential for accidents in February,” Greene said. “Unfortunately, we have seen a succession of fatal accidents.”
This season’s avalanche death total is the highest in Colorado since the 2015-16 season. Last year, three people were killed in Colorado snow slides.
In October, Garcia-Atance reached out to Telluride Daily Planet reporter Rob Story with photos of his early season skiing on Telluride. He had pedaled his mountain bike up to ski resort’s snow-packed upper bowls and later rode the gondola to hike into Revelation Bowl.
“I could not believe the quality of the fresh snow up there, not only that, the amount of snow. I would say 2 feet of accumulated snow or even more on some portions of the run. I was so excited, that I did three runs on Majestic and Golden Cross,” Garcia-Atance told Story, who quoted him as a father of four who recently moved to Telluride from Houston to ski.
“It just really shined through how much he loved backcountry skiing,” Story said on Wednesday.
Greene urged people to pay attention to avalanche forecasts and get educated about the conditions in the backcountry. He also said it’s imperative they have the proper equipment to handle a slide should they or a friend be caught in one.
“We hope that this is the last accident of the year,” he said, “but we are at five now and the average is six.”
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