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Skier killed in Summit County avalanche was prepared. But strong winds, fresh snow created a deadly slab.

Aaron Wiener, of Denver, was the fifth person to die in a Colorado avalanche this snow season. The slide in the steep couloir off Red Peak near Silverthorne was triggered by a skier above him.

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A photo of the fatal April 16, 2020, avalanche near Silverthorne. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Aaron Wiener had skied the couloir off the Red Peak Massif near Silverthorne several times before. His two friends had never skied the narrow, steep line. 

The wind was blowing hard on the morning of April 15, when the veteran backcountry skier dropped into “Oh What Big Eyes You Have” couloir. The trio, experienced in backcountry skiing and equipped with avalanche beacons, probe poles and shovels, was concerned about a wind slab in the north-facing line, so Wiener jumped up and down on the snow at the top of the route. He made a ski cut to release a potential wind slab. 

After the ski cut in the soft snow, Wiener, 30, skied down to a stopping point where he could watch his friends descend. One of them joined him and they watched as their other buddy skied down. He triggered a small avalanche, about 8 to 10 inches deep and 100 feet wide. The moving snow swept Wiener and the second skier off their feet, carrying them further down the couloir. 

Wiener’s two friends, uninjured in the slide, began searching with their avalanche beacons. They found Weiner on the surface at the very bottom of the 1,800-vertical-foot line. He did not survive. 

A snowstorm forced the Summit County Rescue Group to delay a mission to recover the body of Aaron Wiener, who was killed in an avalanche off Red Peak on April 15. (Provided by Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The Denver man became the second skier to die in an avalanche this season, which has seen two snowbikers killed in February and an ice climber killed in January. 

A report by Colorado Avalanche Information Center released Tuesday detailed the conditions and events leading up to the fatal slide off the Gore Range’s 12,905-foot Red Peak. The report, like all CAIC reports, does not identify Wiener by name. The Summit County Coroner last week identified him.

“In this accident, a relatively small avalanche led to a tragic outcome,” reads the report. 

As a snowstorm bore down on the Gore Range, the Summit County Rescue Group delayed their mission into the area by a full day, recovering Wiener’s body on Friday. The group deployed two members in a Flight for Life helicopter and a ground team of six rescuers on the seven-hour mission. 

The Summit County Rescue Group used a Flight for Life helicopter to recover the body of a skier killed in an avalanche on Red Peak. (Provided by Summit County Rescue Group)

The rock-lined couloir off Red Peak is considered a gem among backcountry skiers, renowned for its steep, protected powder and relatively straightforward accessibility. Other skiers have tumbled its length as well. In 2017, a skier self-reported a long fall in the couloir after a small avalanche swept him off his skis near the top of the chute. 

“I should have been Colorado’s first fatality this season,” the unidentified skier wrote in his Feb. 6, 2017 report

The route is included among 50 highlighted descents in the “Climbing and Skiing Colorado’s Mountains” guidebook. The book’s authors describe the north facing line off the sub summit of the Red Peak Massif as “literally the stuff of legends.” 

“Dropping due north off the peak’s northern shoulder is a couloir so steep, inset and aesthetic it easily gives any couloir in the state, possibly even the lower 48, a run for its money,” wrote the guidebook’s authors. “This chute features a sporty entrance and 50-foot-high walls on either side and maintains a minimum angle of 38 degrees and a maximum width of 15 feet for over 1,500 to the apron below.”

The narrow, north-facing couloir off Summit County’s Red Peak is known as “Oh What Big Eyes You Have.” (Provided by Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Avalanche danger for the day Wiener died was rated as moderate, or a level two out of five. The primary concern, according to the CAIC’s backcountry avalanche forecast for the zone, was triggering an avalanche on wind-drifted snow. Strong winds had been drifting fresh snow into wind slabs, with the most dangerous slopes at higher elevations, steeper than 35 degrees and facing north and east. 

In his 15 years with the Summit County Rescue Group, Charles Pitman can’t recall having to wait even one day to retrieve the body of a fallen backcountry traveler. 

“It was something that was very uncomfortable for us and the family and friends, of which this man had many,” Pitman said. 

Pitman and his team were busy last week. They plucked an injured snowboarder off Loveland Pass the day before the fatal avalanche on Red Peak. Summit County’s health orders do not include the “local’s only” clauses seen in Eagle and San Juan counties, although sheriff’s deputies have been warning locals and Front Range visitors to stay apart when they do recreate. 

“I understand why people from the Front Range want to come up and recreate and we appreciate that. We all live up here because we like to recreate,” he said. “As long as people adhere to social distancing guidelines and don’t congregate at trailheads, I think everything will work out just fine.”

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