In late December, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters warned skiers and snowboarders about the region’s mounting avalanche dangers and said ducking boundary ropes and ignoring closures at Telluride ski area could result in criminal charges like reckless endangerment.
“What people don’t realize is that they can trigger an avalanche that has life-threatening risks to unassuming skiers in a different area of the resort,” Masters said.
Not two months later, Telluride local and father of four Salvador Garcia-Atance was killed in an avalanche triggered by a group of snowboarders who had ducked a rope and entered permanently closed terrain just off Telluride ski resort.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene called Garcia-Atance’s death on Feb. 19 “especially tragic” because he had not triggered the slide that killed him. CAIC on Thursday issued a final report on the avalanche, confirming Greene’s early account of what led to a slide in detail.
The sheriff’s office identified and interviewed the three snowboarders who triggered the slide in as part of their investigation of Garcia-Atance’s death. On Friday, Masters said his team still is collecting data — including text messages — and that the process “will take some time.”
Garcia-Atance’s death was the third avalanche fatality in a four-day period in February and the fifth of the season. CAIC has recorded 36 people caught in avalanches this season, with 15 buried and eight killed, the most since 2013-14.
Last season, a low-snow year, only three people were killed in avalanches.
Garcia-Atance left town around 9 a.m. on Feb. 19, planning “a casual ski for exercise” along the popular Bear Creek Trail that climbs from Telluride, the CAIC report’s authors wrote. Around 10:30 a.m., a trio of snowboarders crossed the Telluride ski area boundary rope across from the Alpino Vino restaurant, planning to ride the east face of Temptation Bowl, a permanently closed basin that funnels into a narrow choke above Bear Creek drainage.
While illegal to ski, the bowl sees plenty of traffic and there have been several avalanche fatalities since the 1980s.
The avalanche forecast for that day was “considerable,” or a level three out of five on the danger scale, for terrain above treeline, and “moderate,” or level two of five, below treeline. The ski area had recorded 55 inches of new snow in the 16 days prior, with warm temperatures generating heavy, wet layers on top of a weak, rotten layer of early-season snowpack.
CAIC said February’s warm, wet storms increased avalanche activity, with 98 recorded avalanches between Feb. 3 and Feb. 18 in the North San Juan zone surrounding Telluride.
The three snowboarders used radios to communicate as they navigated the avalanche-prone bowl. They rode down the bowl one at a time. The rider who triggered the slide was able to stay on his feet and escape the moving snow, which funneled into the chute and ran to the valley floor, producing “a large powder cloud,” reads the CAIC report.
The snowboarders made their way to the valley floor and found a large pile of avalanche debris. CAIC reported the avalanche flowed 2,000 vertical feet through the narrow gully and over cliffs, before depositing snow as deep as 30 feet in a pile 100-feet wide. There were many ski and snowboard tracks around the debris, reads the report.
One of the snowboarders searched the debris pile with his avalanche transceiver and probed the snow for about an hour, reads the report. He found nothing and the trio descended into town, warning a family walking up the trail of avalanche danger.
Garcia-Atance’s wife called the sheriff’s office around 4:20 p.m. that afternoon. Deputies pinged his cellphone and saw it was in the Bear Creek drainage. The town closed the Bear Creek trailhead and a search and rescue team “noted a skier’s uphill track leading into the debris, but found no other indications that anyone was involved.” Telluride ski patrollers and avalanche dogs searched the debris below Temptation Bowl for two hours.
The next morning, Telluride patrollers in a helicopter conducted avalanche mitigation in the bowl above the debris pile, triggering several avalanches but none that went to the valley floor. A line of searchers using probe poles struck Garcia-Atance’s backpack. He was buried under 6 feet of debris.
“Most of the backcountry slopes in Bear Creek accessed from the ski resort are avalanche terrain,” the CAIC report says. “It is important for backcountry travelers to consider the potential impacts of avalanches on other travelers, trails, or roadways. The three snowboarders waited before entering the Temptation area, which made them ‘feel confident’ that no other groups were on the slopes below them. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing if anyone was on the trail in the valley bottom.”
The report’s authors said it was “not unexpected” that Garcia-Atance was not wearing an avalanche beacon for a short trip along the well-used trail.
“The outcome of this accident would probably not have changed if (he) was wearing an avalanche transceiver, but the search would have been significantly shorter,” reads the report.
Garcia-Atance moved to Telluride from Houston last year. The father of four was excited about skiing. In October, he pedaled his mountain bike up the resort to ski early-season snow more than a month before the lifts started turning. He sent pictures to the local paper, which ran a quick story on the new arrival’s adventures.
“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,” he told Daily Planet reporter Rob Story. “I was so excited, that I did three runs.”