Communication challenges in a large group and a “terrain trap” were contributing factors in the deadliest avalanche in the state since 2013, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report on the massive slide that killed three men near Ophir Pass in the San Juans on Feb. 1.
A skier who was buried but survived the avalanche on South Lookout Peak near Silverton that killed three of his friends described the torrent of snow that engulfed him like “a river.”
“I was fully under snow for approximately 15 to 25 seconds,” the unnamed skier told investigators with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which issued its final report on the deadly avalanche on Sunday.
The report described the challenge of moving a large group — this one was seven skiers — through avalanche terrain as well as how “small communication errors and misunderstandings can be amplified in large groups.”
The report comes after the deadliest week for avalanches in the United States in more than a century. Counting this South Lookout Mountain tragedy and a slide in Utah’s Millcreek Canyon on Saturday that killed four, 15 people have died in avalanches in the country in the last seven days.
Three men — Adam Palmer, Seth Bossung and Andy Jessen — were buried and killed in the avalanche. They were among a group of Eagle County locals visiting the Opus Hut. The crew had spent a few days skiing in the backcountry around Red Mountain Pass. Some of them had skied out of Silverton Mountain’s helicopter the day before, on Sunday. They skied into the Opus Hut around 1 p.m. on Monday and spent about an hour at the remote cabin before venturing out for an afternoon tour.
Some of the skiers, like Palmer, had been part of the annual trip to Opus for many years. Others, like Jessen, were new to the trip. All were friends from back home in Eagle. As they left the hut, the caretaker said there had been “lots of [avalanche] activity on all aspects and today is the warmest day since December,” according to the report by CAIC forecasters Spencer Logan, Jeff Davis, Rebecca Hodgetts and Mike Barney.
The crew climbed a short stretch and skied a southwest-facing slope into the drainage between Ophir Pass road — which is closed in winter — and The Nose, a descent on the skier’s left of South Lookout Peak. They climbed to a ridge toward the top of the The Nose and stopped at a saddle around 11,800 feet. They decided to ski a sparsely treed slope and skied one at a time with a plan to regroup on a small knob just above a steep-walled gully at the bottom of the peak’s face.
“Before the entire group collected on the knob, the first skiers to arrive began skiing down the rest of the slope and into the gully,” reads the report.
Palmer, Jessen, Bossup and the unnamed fourth man descended the gully, which the report describes as a “terrain trap.” One of them stopped on the right wall of the gully and the fourth skier yelled for him to avoid the steep section of the gully on the right side. All four men were moving down the gully when the avalanche released around 3:20 p.m.
The report says the avalanche came in two waves. The fourth skier was able to pull his avalanche airbag when the first wall of snow released and he was standing in the bottom of the gully when a second wave hit him from behind.
“He was engulfed in snow and tumbled violently,” the report says.
The remaining three skiers were able to find the fourth man, whose airbag was visible above the debris. Palmer, Jessen and Bossung, however, were completely buried.
The four skiers sent an SOS signal on an InReach device around 4:40 p.m. and they were able to detect signals from their friend’s avalanche transceivers. But the closest signals they could detect on their transceivers were between 4 and 5 meters, or about 13 to 16 feet. (For transceiver searching, the digging begins at the lowest reading, which is the closest point to the buried skier.) The four men dug for two hours.
Inside the holes, the signals from the transceivers showed their friends still 5-to-6 feet below. They were able to touch one of their friends with a probe pole from within one hole.
At nightfall, the four men were exhausted and made the “difficult decision” to return to the hut, reads the report. They built snowshoes out of tree branches for the fourth skier who lost his skis in the slide. Around 7:30 p.m. they made contact with San Juan County Search and Rescue members who had organized around 5 p.m. after getting the group’s distress call. The rescuers brought the four men back to the trailhead and suspended search operations until the following morning.
Searchers recovered two of the men on Tuesday as the Helitrax helicopter operation dropped explosives onto adjacent slopes, triggering several large avalanches. The search team of more than 30 people returned on Wednesday and recovered the third skier. One of the men was buried 9 feet deep. Another was at 11 feet. And the third was buried 20 feet deep in the gully.
Search teams broke eight shovels and used chainsaws to cut through the cement-like snow to reach the men.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides comments on all its fatal accident reports, hoping that insight into the events leading up to the avalanche can help other backcountry travelers avoid getting caught in a slide.
Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, describes his reports as akin to a newspaper. There are the news reports and the editorial section. In this avalanche, the forecasters highlighted the difficulty in communicating with a large group. Four of the skiers began their descent of the gully before the rest of the skiers arrived at the knob.
“Yet Rider 1 started down the gully before the rest of the group arrived,” the report says. “He was quickly followed by Riders 2, 3 and 4. There were suddenly four riders in the gully, all out of sight of the people on the knob when the avalanche released.”
“Gullies are bad places to be,” Greene said in an interview Sunday. “A lot of guides and avalanche professionals just avoid them altogether.”
Greene said his staff can’t point to the communication breakdown as a cause for the accident “but it’s definitely something that came out of the discussion that staff had with the people in the group.”
Greene and his team have been working hard this season, which has seen eight people buried and killed in Colorado avalanches, with more winter to come.
A weak layer of snow buried deep in the snowpack is shedding slabs of new snow. As more snow falls, the stress on that weak layer grows and avalanches hazards rise.
This is not a normal year, Greene said, who estimates the increased avalanche danger this season is maybe a 1 in 10 occurrence. So, for a skier who has spent 20 years in the Colorado backcountry, this is likely the second time to see this level of widespread avalanche hazard.
“This is the year to keep things mellow,” Greene said. “This is frustrating for us. Obviously we are not doing enough, but we have been doing everything we normally do plus an incredible amount more. It’s hard to know how successful we are. Maybe if we were not doing what we are doing, things would be worse. But eight people dead by the first week of February — this is not a good place to be.”