The Eagle County crew was ready for a couple days in the powder around Opus Hut in southwest Colorado, part of an annual gathering of highly skilled skiers.
Monday afternoon on South Lookout Peak, three of the seven men were buried in a massive avalanche and are feared dead. The accident near Silverton comes halfway through a grim season where a dangerous rotten layer of snow across the state caused avalanches that killed four skiers in December.
Details were thin Tuesday morning as San Juan County Search and Rescue team members met at dawn to return to the zone and search for the missing skiers.
Late Monday afternoon, a skier-triggered avalanche on the northeast facing slope known as The Nose near Ophir Pass caught four of the men. The group’s three untouched skiers were able to free one of their friends, but the frantic digging for the other three stretched into darkness.
When rescuers arrived Monday night, they escorted the uninjured skiers back to Silverton and returned early Tuesday to resume the search.
The Helitrax helicopter operation out of Telluride assisted searchers with avalanche mitigation in the zone before the crews began their recovery of the three victims. The men, who have not been publicly identified, are very well known in Eagle and the burial sent painful shockwaves across the small community.
The Monday slide could be the deadliest in Colorado since five people were killed in an avalanche near Loveland Pass on April. 20, 2013.
Avalanche danger was rated “considerable” near and above treeline on Monday, with Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters reporting “several human-triggered, large and dangerous avalanches” across the Northern San Juans.
Several reports from avalanche observers noted a particularly dicey weekend with many natural and skier-triggered avalanches. The new snow piling atop a buried weak layer is raising the avalanche hazard across the state.
Late Tuesday, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and search and rescue team suspended the search for the three skiers, citing the “considerable” hazard. Search teams encountered natural and mitigated avalanches on nearby slopes during the mission on Tuesday.
In a statement, county officials said the recovery of the skiers was suspended until avalanche conditions are stable.
But new snow forecast for the coming days does not bode well for a reduction in the avalanche hazard. The county also declined to identify the skiers until the San Juan County Coroner’s Office can investigate.
“Avalanche danger in the backcountry is always unpredictable regardless of your avalanche knowledge and skills,” read a news release from San Juan County’s Office of Emergency Management, which was directing what it called “a recovery mission” on Tuesday. “It is critical to check the avalanche forecast and avalanche danger prior to venturing into the backcountry.”