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Guides’ familiarity with terrain, underestimating danger possibly had role in fatal Jones Pass avalanche

Hans Berg, a photographer and guide with Empire-based Powder Addiction snowcat skiing, was killed March 7 in a massive slide that broke trees “like popsicle sticks”

Looking up the March 7, 2019, Jones Pass avalanche path at the crown. The cornice likely collapsed in the upper right portion of the image, resulting avalanches on both sides. The cornice face was over 15 feet tall. Avalanches stepped down in both directions into a layer of near-surface faceted crystals about a meter deep as well as into the depth hoar layer at the ground. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
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Hans Berg was working as a backcountry ski guide and photographer when he was killed in a slide on Jones Pass during an avalanche cycle that ranks among the most destructive in Colorado history.

A report issued Thursday by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center points to human factors and decision-making that increased risk on an already dangerous day last month, when forecasters were reporting “avalanches are running as big as they have in decades.”

Berg, 48, was posted up on the right side of the run on March 7, snapping photos of 12 clients and two other guides for the Empire-based Powder Addiction snowcat skiing operation. It was their seventh run. The group had already been turned around by avalanche debris on the snowcat’s approach road and had spent their day skiing low-angle trees.

Everyone had gathered at the bottom of the run. The two guides were with the group when Berg began his descent. The group then saw the avalanche coming from well-above him.

A guide screamed into the radio: “Avalanche! Go left. Go … go … go!” reads the CAIC report detailing the seventh avalanche fatality of the season.

Investigators believe the avalanche was caused after a large cornice collapsed into the loading zone at the top of the avalanche path. The slide was huge, measuring about 2,000-feet wide and running about 1,000 vertical feet. The wall left by the cornice collapse was 15-feet tall.

The group lost sight of Berg in the debris and powder cloud.

“The clients said that the avalanche ‘was breaking trees like popsicle sticks,’ and the group thought the avalanche was going to impact them all,” according to the report. “The powder cloud hit the entire group with enough force to push some people around.”

Looking up from the toe of the south leg of the March 7, 2019, avalanche near Jones Pass. A guide was buried on top of the bench in the center of the image. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

A snowboarding client who was navigating a shallow bench about 50 feet from the group was swept into the slide and buried. A second wave of debris hit the pile he was buried in and carried him even further down the slope. He told CAIC investigators “he could hear trees breaking as he tumbled in the debris.” He came to rest on the surface, uninjured.

The guides did a headcount and had their clients switch avalanche beacons off or from send to search. One guide got a strong signal as the other started probing the snow. They found Berg buried about 2½-feet deep and the group extricated him within two to three minutes. He was conscious, “but it was obvious that he had sustained trauma in the avalanche.”

The cat driver notified emergency medical services and left the machine to deliver medical equipment and a rescue sled to the group. An off-duty guide touring in the area saw the avalanche, went to the parked snowcat and took over radio communications. They had Berg loaded into the snowcat within 25 minutes “but by that time he was showing signs of severe hypovolemic shock including a decreasing mental state.”

Forty minutes after the avalanche, Berg was loaded into an ambulance at the trailhead and transported to a metro-area hospital. He died about 5½ hours after the avalanche.

The group had met in Empire that morning and discussed the day’s avalanche danger, which the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had ranked “high” for the Front Range zone they were skiing.

The center’s forecasters had ranked neighboring zones in central Colorado with “extreme” danger, an unprecedented alarm across four major swaths of Colorado, noting “exceptional avalanche conditions” and a virtually certain likelihood of large, destructive avalanches reaching valley floors.

The group’s decision for the day, reads the report, was to ski lower-angle terrain “and to stay out of avalanche terrain.”

“Avalanches are running to valley floors and some are exceeding historic run outs,” reads the CAIC’s March 7, 2019, avalanche forecast for Summit and Eagle county zones written by forecaster Kreston Rohrig. “Even low-elevation avalanche terrain that rarely slides might today. We are seeing the biggest avalanches of the season, and in some cases the avalanches are running as big as they have in decades. Some very big slides, from Jones Pass to Breckenridge  to Fremont Pass, is just a small sample illustrating that the concern is widespread across the Front Range and Vail-Summit zones.”

Two days before, CAIC had taken videos of two very large explosives-triggered avalanches, one near Henderson Mine about 3 miles from the Jones Pass avalanche and another in the Disney Chute, about 7 miles east of the slide that killed Berg. Arapahoe Basin ski area — less than 10 miles as the crow flies from Jones Pass — did not open on March 7, citing “extreme avalanche concerns” at both the ski area and along U.S. 6.

It was the sketchiest day for avalanches in Colorado in decades, maybe ever. A three-day storm had dumped a wet 21 inches of snow on Jones Pass, arriving with strong winds that formed cornices and loaded slopes with even heavier loads. The weight of the wet new snow was stressing weak layers on the ground from October and November.

When those weak, faceted layers on the ground failed under the load, the largest avalanches ever witnessed in Colorado were barreling down mountains.

Veteran CAIC forecasters Brian Lazar, Spencer Logan and Mike Cooperstein as well as Alpine Rescue Team avalanche expert Dale Atkins investigated the Jones Pass slide. Their report is chilling in its assessment of human factors and decision-making in the fatal slide.

Those so-called “heuristic traps” — or human factors — are playing a larger role in avalanche accidents, and educators are imbedding behavioral education and recognition of decision-making into avalanche-awareness programs.

The traps include complacency that comes from familiarity with terrain, the propensity to stick with pre-arranged decisions, the role of experts in groups, and powder fever, which has skiers perhaps letting the promise of first-tracks eclipse signs of danger.

The avalanche that killed Berg — which the CAIC report said was the largest to run in that particular path in at least 20 years — hit a lot of heuristic buttons.

The guides had deep experience in the area, which “may have made them overly comfortable with the potential avalanche hazards,” reads the report. The guides did not reassess plans after debris buried an access road.

They also underestimated overhead hazard, the report says, noting that in dangerous conditions “you should consider that the entire avalanche path is threatened by avalanches.” The group’s gathering point at the bottom of the run was just at the boundary of the avalanche debris and the CAIC report noted that a larger avalanche could have caught more of the group.

“It can be easy for us to feel comfortable in terrain that we travel in often, but we need to recognize when conditions are outside of those we have experienced in the past and make more conservative decisions,” says the report. “We offer these comments in the hope that it will help people avoid future avalanche accidents.”

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