The father and son had throttled their snowmobiles up the steep, east-facing slope below Mount Epworth several times that Sunday afternoon.
Dad — 58-year-old Michael “Tony” Westall — went for a final charge up the hill. But instead of turning his machine around the high-point of his arc, he kept going across the hill. His 18-year-old son watched as the avalanche released and Westall and his sled were swept down the slope and into the small Pumphouse Lake at the bottom of the snowfield above treeline near Rollins Pass.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s final report on the Feb. 14 death of Westall is harrowing. His son desperately tried to free his father, who was buried under the snowmobile, “pinned in a slushy mix of avalanche debris and water,” reads the report investigated and written by CAIC’s Spencer Logan and Michael Floyd.
“Rider 2 was unable to free his father from the snowmobile, and used the shovel to prop his head out of the water,” reads the report. “Rider 1 was initially conscious, but eventually lost consciousness and stopped breathing.”
The son raced down the hill to get reception on his mobile phone and call for help. A Grand County Search and Rescue team member was at the trailhead near Winter Park’s Lakota neighborhood when he got the page and arrived at Pumphouse Lake 27 minutes after the son called 911.
The Grand County rescuer was able to pull Westall from the debris and began resuscitation efforts. A second wave of Grand County rescuers, including a doctor, arrived and began advanced life support. But Westall, a father of four from Parker, could not be revived, marking the 10th of 11 Colorado avalanche deaths this season.
The 2020-21 avalanche season is pacing to be the worst in decades, with 31 backcountry travelers killed in nine states. The grim count includes 15 skiers, four snowboarders, nine snowmobilers and three climbers. The month of February marks the darkest in U.S. backcountry history, with 24 travelers killed in avalanches, more than all of the 2019-20 season.
The avalanche crown along the edge of Mount Epworth spanned 2,000 feet. (The perennial snowfield above the Fraser River Valley along a long-abandoned rail line is home to a summer ski race that dates back more than 55 years.)
The CAIC forecast for Feb. 14 pointed to high winds and new snow stressing a buried weak layer of faceted snow deep in the snowpack. The forecast, part of a Special Avalanche Advisory in effect from Feb. 12 to Feb. 15, noted that wind could have built slabs of snow as deep as 3-feet on top of that weak layer.
From Feb. 4 to Feb. 13, the CAIC fielded reports of 41 avalanches in the Front Range zone, including 10 large slides on east to southeast facing slopes near treeline.
On Feb. 16, two snowmobilers were caught in a large slide near Ruby Mountain southeast of Rand in Jackson County. The avalanche released on a weak layer buried 3-feet deep but stepped down to even deeper layers near the ground. One of the snowmobilers was buried in 2-feet of debris. He was not wearing an avalanche transceiver and was not located until the following day, by rescuers using an avalanche-search dog.
The avalanche danger remains elevated throughout the state, with forecasts across the state warning travelers to be wary of deeply buried layers and advising skiers and snowmobilers to avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees when uncertain of stability.