BRECKENRIDGE – It was sunny and cold on Feb. 18, 1987. Ski patroller Mary Logan remembers the snow squeaking beneath her skis as she rode the T-bar with patrol director Kevin Ahern.
They were watching two skiers atop Peak 7 in the Tenmile Range, just beyond the Breckenridge ski area boundary. They watched helplessly as the second skier triggered a massive avalanche. A cloud of cold smoke buried several skiers in the steep bowl.
“It was astonishing to see a slide that large,” Logan said. “It’s a sight I will never forget.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The slow-motion disaster killed four men and forever changed Colorado skiing. It was a tragedy Logan, Ahern and many other patrollers were expecting for weeks. And it left an indelible mark on Colorado skiing.
The Peak 7 slide triggered sweeping changes in avalanche awareness, education and messaging. It created a region-wide, communal response to avalanches. It solidified a Forest Service policy to never close access between resorts and public lands. It set in motion a statewide expansion of ski terrain, with resorts opening steeper-and-deeper slopes that appealed to a new generation of powder-chasing skiers.
Breckenridge patrollers in early February had stopped warning the resort’s managers and Forest Service officials about the deadly implications if Peak 7 avalanched.
“We were talking about when it would go,” Ahern said. “We were waiting for it and we thought we were prepared and we were. Then it was right in front of us.”
It was a moment Colorado’s ski resort leaders, avalanche educators, search and rescuers and Forest Service officials will never forget either: It is one they have used to shape the future of skiing in the country’s most skied state.
A deadly season for skiers leaving resort boundaries
The 1986-87 ski season started with below-average snow at Breckenridge. Then a long, cold snowless spell in January wrecked the snowpack, leaving a rotten layer that would invariably shed new snow.
For most of that season, lawyers, sheriffs, avalanche forecasters, Forest Service officials, resort operators and ski patrollers were locked in a roiling discussion about public access to the backcountry via access points at resort boundaries across Colorado. Should there even be access gates? Can resorts close them? Should the Forest Service close them? Can ski patrollers go into popular zones and throw explosives to possibly reduce the threat of avalanches? And could resorts or the Forest Service be held liable for accidents if they started to close areas or mitigate avalanche danger based on safety concerns?
At Breckenridge, the discussion was particularly acute. The large, steep Peak 7 bowl was entirely visible to everyone riding the T-bar chair that climbed Horseshoe Bowl, which had opened in the 1984-85 season. From the top of that lift, skiers could easily glide into the Peak 7 bowl.
In the month leading up to the Peak 7 slide, three skiers had been caught in avalanches and killed after leaving the Telluride ski area boundary. Two of those skiers were in the easy-to-access Bear Creek drainage, which remains one of the gnarliest and deadliest backcountry zones adjacent to any ski area in the country.
On Jan. 6, two skiers were caught and partially buried in the Peak 7 bowl. As new snow fell and weighed on a weakening layer in late January and early February, Breckenridge ski patrollers were counting hundreds of skiers a day heading into the bowl. On busy weekends, they counted thousands.
On Feb. 11, at the beginning of a weeklong snowstorm, Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters Dale Atkins and Nick Logan joined Breckenridge patrol director Ahern in a public avalanche awareness seminar in town. Dozens of locals attended.
Ski patrollers in late January and early February would spend hours at the access point heading into Peak 7, urging ill-prepared skiers to turn around. The patrollers would end their days in tears after watching a parade of powder-seeking skiers ignore their pleas, said David Peri, the longtime head of marketing at Breckenridge.
“They were telling people they were putting their lives in their own hands. One patroller told us he had to beg a dad not to take his 9-year-old daughter in there. The dad ignored him. People would say, ‘Oh, you are just saving that stash for yourself,’” said Peri, describing a panic among patrollers pleading with resort bosses to close the access gate. “They told us they didn’t want to dig up the bodies of children and we had to do something.”
On Feb. 15, a skier was partially buried in an avalanche in the bowl. He lost his rental skis. He returned a day later on another pair of rental skis to search for the lost gear.
The challenge was the view. So many skiers could see the untrammeled powder, mere feet from the Forget-Me-Not run. It was hard for naive skiers to know the difference between the controlled in-bounds terrain and that backcountry bowl full of powder.
“We struggled to get that message across,” Logan said.
On the day before the avalanche, patrollers erected a giant sign — 4 feet by 6 feet — that plainly described the peril on the other side. The sign warned of “extremely dangerous avalanche paths.” It noted that three skiers had been caught in avalanches in the bowl in the previous weeks. It said that tracks in the bowl didn’t diminish the avalanche risk. It reminded skiers that rescue by the local sheriff “may be slow and costly.”
“We all knew this was a ticking time bomb,” Peri said. “No one was trying to look away.”
Patrollers installed a rope maze at the access point, which forced skiers to hike uphill a few steps to wind through the boundary and, hopefully, glance up.
“We wanted to give people plenty of time to read that sign,” said Nick Logan, Mary’s husband and a ski patroller who also worked as a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Mary Logan and Ahern were heading up the T-bar that afternoon to take pictures and talk with skiers. Maybe they could share the dangers hidden in that alluringly powdery bowl.
As soon as the bowl slid, they began a search that would last three days.
“Right off the bat I knew we didn’t have the resources for the full-scale rescue I knew we needed,” Ahern said. He got on the radio at 2:07 p.m. and reported the slide. He asked dispatch operators to call every ski resort they could and ask for patrollers. They called the sheriff and launched the local search and rescue team. They closed lifts and restaurants so any available worker could help with the rescue.
Mary looked at the skiers gathered near the access gate and said, “Follow me.”
“If you want to help, we need it. This is going to be really hard work,” she told the volunteers.
Nick Logan had spent the morning of Feb. 18 talking with skiers as they headed into the bowl. He passed out cards with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center hotline, so skiers could call and get forecasts. He asked if they were carrying any rescue equipment, like an avalanche transceiver, shovel or probe pole. Only one was. But that was not unusual at that time. Few recreational skiers carried avalanche safety equipment.
Most of the skiers simply hurried past. They were looking at the inviting tracks that were already laid down in the bowl, Logan said.
“Many of them had two, three runs already under their belt,” said Logan, who was taking notes and snapping photos “that I thought were going to be so useful for my avalanche education classes.”
Logan pondered skiing the bowl as he left for a break.
“It was about 2 p.m. and I thought, ‘Wow, that looks like really good skiing.’ It was alluring,” he said. “But in the back of my mind I thought, ‘I know what can happen.’”
So Logan ducked back inbounds and headed to the patrol hut. He had not even removed his skis when patrollers started pouring out of the building with bundles of rescue gear and probe poles. “It’s happened,” they said.
“And I knew exactly what they meant,” he recalled.
At that exact moment, Breckenridge’s top managers and attorneys were meeting with Forest Service officials in a company office at the base of the ski area in town. They were discussing how to better manage the access point into Peak 7.
“We were literally arguing about the boundary when the radios clicked on and said there’s been an avalanche and it’s a bad one and everyone needed to get up there,” Peri said. “All of us got up. Just ashen faced. God, I’ll never forget that.”
Eight caught, five buried, the largest rescue effort in Colorado history
The slide began in the southern portion of the bowl and propagated northward. The crown, 8-feet deep at its largest, stretched 1,600 feet along the ridge. The debris field covered nearly 24 acres, according to reports compiled by Atkins and Mary Logan, who was in charge of accident investigations for the Breckenridge ski patrol.
Out in the bowl, eight people were swept into the ocean of moving snow. Only four of them would survive.
Nicholas Casey, a 22-year-old New Zealander who was spending the season working with friends in Breckenridge, was digging for a ski when he was hit by the avalanche. His pal Paul Way, 23, was just below, waiting with 19-year-old Martin Donnellan, from New York, and Tim Kirkland, a 25-year-old Aussie. They had been waiting for Casey to find his ski for about 20 minutes, when someone yelled, “Avalanche!”
A little higher up, 35-year-old George Cates and his 17-year-old stepbrother, Alex Cates, both from New York, were skiing their first-ever lap in Peak 7. The older brother saw the slide and warned Alex to ski to the side. Below them, 16-year-old Marc Radicci, also from New York, was buried. Another skier, identified only as Andy in avalanche reports, somehow managed to outrace the debris and was partially caught.
George was buried to his knees and extracted himself. He frantically dug into the snow where someone was buried. It was Radicci. He freed the teenager’s head and left to go find his brother, who would not be recovered until the third and final day of the largest search effort in Colorado history. Kirkland was able to ski nearly out of the slide path and was partially buried. His three friends were never seen alive again.
The four deaths pushed the avalanche fatality count for Colorado to eight and there were still two or three months left in the season. By the middle of March three more skiers would die in avalanches in Colorado, marking one of the deadliest avalanche seasons on record.
The search response was perhaps the largest in modern Colorado history. By 3 p.m., 82 volunteers, many grabbed from the ski slopes, were probing the snow. They found the first victim, Donellan, around 5:15 p.m. He was buried in about 4 feet of debris.
By the second day more than 400 people marched across the debris, probing every square foot of snow. Around noon on that second day they uncovered Wray and Casey. Hundreds of patrollers and avalanche experts from across the region guided the effort, with just about every probe pole and avalanche-trained rescue dog in the state deployed below Peak 7.
The two skiers who had descended from the top, who triggered the initial slide, were there to help in the first hours. They told Atkins, the Logans and Ahern where they last saw skiers, which helped searchers in the initial rescue work. The Summit County sheriff later that night told gathering reporters he planned to find the skiers and charge them with a crime.
That spooked the skiers, who disappeared. Rescuers lamented their departure from the debris field. They were the last people to see where skiers were when the wall of snow scoured the bowl.
“We finally got the sheriff to say he would not arrest them and they came back for the final day and helped us find that fourth skier,” Atkins said.
6,169 man hours spent probing, searching
In many ways, avalanche rescue has changed a lot. In other ways, it remains the same, with strategies that date back centuries. Probing debris with long poles remains the standard. Same with avalanche dogs. Without a transceiver sending a signal, finding a buried skier relies on long sticks and dog noses.
Students from the Colorado School of Mines arrived with ground-penetrating radar. It took four people to wrestle the nearly 300-pound gizmo teetering on patrol toboggans across the debris. It didn’t work.
“As a rescuer, until that accident I never realized how hard it was to find somebody,” said Atkins. “It was the experience of not finding people that first and second day. In the past, we would show up and find people. At Peak 7, we had hundreds of people out searching and we were still missing people.”
Ahern, who retired last year, still lives in Breckenridge. He remembers taking a breath at the end of the first day of searching and marveling at his community. Ski patrollers from rival resorts were there. Rescuers from other counties, too. Restaurant owners brought food to the site. Resorts from across the state sent avalanche-trained rescue dogs. Locals were there with probe poles, shovels and any support they could offer.
According to statistics gathered by Mary Logan, 344 searchers from 51 resorts, rescue teams, and government organizations spent 6,169 man-hours searching for the four men. That number does not include more than 100 volunteers who helped.
The communal response spurred the creation of the now 70-member Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, which can scramble avalanche experts, dogs and a helicopter in response to a big slide. A Flight For Life helicopter was able to ferry a dog team from Copper Mountain to the Peak 7 avalanche that day, sparking a program that today can deploy a helicopter with avalanche technicians and their dogs to any slope in Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek and Grand counties within 15 minutes.
A media “feeding frenzy”
When Nick and Mary Logan finally left the debris field late that first night, resort managers urged them to call their families and let them know they were OK. The slide was national news.
Within the first couple hours of the avalanche, the satellite-connected television trucks began arriving, doing live reports from the base area parking lot. By nightfall there were six trucks, including some representing several national outlets.
There were 135 reporters at the next morning’s press conference. Greenhorn public relations assistant Jim Felton caught a 9News reporter and cameraman trying to sneak into the debris field on rented snowmobiles.
“They were like ‘freedom of the press.’ We had to get the sheriff after them,” Felton said. “Man, it was wild.”
Peri said the national reporters were aggressively seeking a villain.
“There was a reporter from CNN, she kept asking us, ‘Whose hands are bloody here,’” Peri said.
The Breckenridge team eventually started guiding reporters up to the site, twice a day, where they could take photos and shoot video of the rescue effort.
The reporters kept hammering Peri for a person or group to blame. If everyone knew the flood of skiers onto Peak 7 would end with mass casualties, how could the resort or Forest Service not stop those skiers? Peri sparked a furor when he told a reporter that the only way to stop people from heading into the powder-caked bowl was “to give our patrollers AK-47s.”
At the end of the third day of searching, rescuers found 17-year-old Alex Cates. The rescue team had installed dome tents borrowed from the local phone company at the bottom of the debris field. Rescuers hauled the bodies into those tents, where families were able to spend a few minutes with their loved ones.
“It was so wonderful to offer that. It was a human moment that meant so much to the families and friends and so much to us as rescuers,” said Atkins, choking a bit on the memory that has not blurred despite the veteran rescuer’s recovery of many dozens of skiers killed in avalanches. “Just for a minute, being able to share that experience, it’s something that has continued to fuel my passion for search and rescue and helping people who really need some help.”
Atkins had one more helpful idea at the end of the three-day search. A slight-of-sled for grieving families and friends: a patroller huddling under blankets and perfectly still as his fellow patrollers stoically, slowly guided him down the hill in a toboggan. The waiting press gave chase. And then patrollers were able to slowly bring down Cates in another toboggan, escorted by family, including his older brother.
A new skier group, pushing resorts, challenging avalanche experts
In 1987, four forecasters relying on volunteer-provided observations could only record messages for skiers who called in. Atkins remembers after Peak 7 the Colorado Avalanche Information Center started getting more calls to its forecasting hotline. The center added two more phone lines later that season as more skiers started looking for insight into avalanche hazards.
Today, the avalanche center has 20 forecasters working from eight offices across the state and a nonprofit fundraising arm — the Friends of the CAIC — that raises more than $350,000 a year for the center.
Last year looked a lot like 1987. A cold, dry January yielded to a snowy February and avalanche danger spiked. The CAIC rallied to put up more than 200 signs warning of increased avalanche danger at trailheads around the state and center staff gave 253 interviews with the press to help spread word of the increased danger on top of consistent blasts on social media. The center’s website hosted 2.9 million page views.
The governor sent out warnings. The center even erected a billboard in downtown Denver urging skiers to check forecasts to learn about the increasing hazard.
“It’s impressive to see what CAIC has become from the just four of us in 1987,” Nick Logan said.
Avalanche rescue training for patrollers got a bit more intense after Peak 7. But it wasn’t a sweeping overhaul. That came for recreational skiers. Back then, avalanche safety, education and rescue equipment was for professionals. Backcountry skiing was something closer to cross-country touring in the 1980s. Sure, skinny-skied backcountry travelers needed to recognize avalanche terrain, but they were not necessarily skiing in it, just skiing in valleys below it or near it.
That started changing in the late 1980s. Skiers were venturing into the steep and deep. The resorts called them “yo-yo skiers,” because they were leaving resort boundaries to ski backcountry powder and then returning to the resort to ride lifts back up the hill. A slew of ski movies, including Greg Stump’s seminal film, “Blizzard of AAHHH’S,” highlighted a new form of extreme skiing beyond ski resorts.
“It was just a whole different user group,” said Atkins, one of four forecasters who worked for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 1987, when forecasts were recorded on a hotline backcountry skiers called to get statewide updates on shifting conditions and risks. “That accident on Peak 7 triggered a big shift for us. It showed us — the avalanche professionals, the forecasters, the patrollers — that we had a serious recreational problem. We kind of already knew it, but it showed us we had a new customer who was going to be involved in more avalanches moving forward.”
It was easy for skiers in the 1980s to claim ignorance of avalanche dangers. There were only a handful of places where skiers could get updated forecasts. Avalanche safety classes were geared toward professionals, like ski patrollers. So it was up to patrollers to help educate skiers about ever-shifting avalanche risks involving snowpack and weather.
Ahern said his team did everything they could to educate visitors and locals in the weeks preceding the slide. He can’t imagine anything more they could have done.
“At a certain point, it’s about personal responsibility that people need to take for their actions,” he said, “and sometimes that ends tragically.”
Affirming Forest Service policy to never close boundaries
The Peak 7 avalanche prodded the White River National Forest — the most skied forest in the country — to develop a formal boundary management policy that became a part of ski area permits and eventually became national policy.
Forest Service officials at the White River had spent the previous year surveying users about boundary policies at resorts. Many resorts were asking the agency to close the public lands adjacent to the in-bounds slopes.
Ken Kowynia, then the snow ranger for the White River’s Dillon Ranger District, convened those meetings. He had worked on crews building trails at Breckenridge in the 1970s, eventually managed all ski areas on Forest Service land in the agency’s Rocky Mountain region.
The public clearly did not want the agency to close lands adjacent to ski areas, Kowynia said. So the agency focused on backcountry access points and signage.
Many people at Breckenridge ski area were not pleased with Kowynia’s refusal to close the backcountry access gate at Peak 7. He had visited with patrollers out there a week before the avalanche and saw dozens of skiers venturing into the dangerous terrain.
“Yeah, we had a lot of second guessing after such a horrible situation,” said Kowynia, who retired after 32 years with the Forest Service in 2013 and now lives in Steamboat Springs. “But you have to understand the Forest Service cannot be in the position of opening and closing the national forest. You just always have to assume it’s dangerous all the time.”
The Forest Service was clear: the agency did not close public lands. Colorado law was also clear. The Colorado Ski Safety Act allowed resort operators to close boundaries if an adjacent landowner did not want skiers on their property.
Every year, Breckenridge would ask the Forest Service if they wanted to close the land adjacent to the boundary.
“They always said no,” said Boots Ferguson, an attorney who has worked for decades with Aspen Skiing Co. on boundary issues. (Breckenridge was purchased by the Aspen Skiing Co. in 1970.)
Peak 7, Kowynia said, launched him into years of “very intense discussions” about the consequences of a no-closure policy and “whether it’s legal for a ski area to close the national forest.”
He eventually shepherded that Forest Service no-closure policy to the gate heading from Vail ski area into East Vail, where at least eight skiers have died in avalanches. And Bear Creek outside Telluride, where even more have perished.
After the Peak 7 avalanche though, most ski resorts in Colorado attempted to close their boundaries. They used an unusual rule that allowed them to close about 10 feet of space between a boundary rope and open Forest Service land. They called it a strip closure.
Breckenridge and the Roaring Fork Valley ski areas owned by Aspen Skiing Co. did not deploy strip closures. It was largely impossible to enforce, Ferguson said.
The post-Peak 7 response by resorts fell into two camps. One side, which was promoted by plenty of instructors, patrollers and managers, argued that ski resorts needed to protect their guests from themselves. That meant closing access to public lands — and avalanche prone slopes — with strip closures that kept visitors from unwittingly exposing themselves to risks they may not fully understand.
Ferguson called that “protectionist” and “a slippery slope.” He supported Aspen Skiing Co.’s push for education over regulation and did not side with patrollers who urged the resort to close the gate leading to Peak 7. When he arrived at the base of Peak 7 on that Wednesday in February 1987, someone told him he was responsible for the people buried under that dense carpet of debris.
“They told me I had blood on my hands,” he said. “It was a heat-of-the-moment thing, but I’ll never forget that. How could I?”
But he was steadfast in his opposition to closing the boundary access points leading to public land. Protecting guests from themselves “just couldn’t be done,” Ferguson said. So the resort company opted to inform skiers about the risks so they could make their own decisions.
That meant signs. Strongly worded billboards that essentially told skiers that the lifeguard was not on duty. They would have to rescue themselves – if they even survived an accident in the wild lands beyond the rope. The education approach also sparked a massive overhaul of avalanche awareness messaging and classes that targeted not just professionals but recreational skiers.
“We got into some real philosophical discussions,” Ferguson said. “It looked something like this. Freedom is critical and part of the price of freedom is taking risk. So the question was — and really remains today — if we are going to be proponents of freedom, how can we best apprise people of the risks so they could make the best decisions?”
That approach has emerged as the guiding principle for backcountry access at resorts in Colorado, where signs leading to out-of-bounds terrain deliver bluntly worded, skull-and-crossbones warnings of the possibility of death in the pristine powder beckoning from the other side of the nylon rope.
An extreme-terrain arms race
The education-over-regulation approach also triggered a sort of extreme-terrain arms race among ski area resorts as they vied to offer in-bounds skiing that was mitigated by patrollers hurling explosives to move snow before skiers did.
As skiers began pushing for more steeps and more powder, the resorts responded. Since the late 1980s, just about every resort has added more challenging terrain to its operations, almost always expanding within special-use permit boundaries outlined by the Forest Service.
Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Keystone, Aspen Highlands, Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park, Telluride and Silverton Mountain are examples of ski areas that thrive on steep, wild terrain that in the 1980s could only be skied by a small population of particularly skilled skiers. (Today’s equipment, especially much wider skis, has flattened the learning curve for skiers yearning to ski technical, powdery terrain.)
In 2004, Colorado lawmakers updated the Colorado Ski Safety Act to include a new category of steep skiable acres called “extreme terrain.”
The last 30 years of expansions into expert-only acres are part of an overarching regional approach by the Forest Service that urges ski areas to expand within existing permits versus building new ski areas from scratch.
Peak 7 became part of Breckenridge ski area in 1994 and is now served by two high-speed lifts. The Peak 7 avalanche’s prodding of resorts to open more challenging terrain and expand within existing permit boundaries helped the Forest Service more firmly support expansion versus new construction on public lands, Kowynia said.
“It was not a catalyst so much, but in retrospect, it was the Forest Service saying why not let resorts move into this new terrain and do control work so people can more safely ski on their public lands,” Kowynia said.
Ferguson said the Peak 7 slide opened up discussions about risk and skiing, both within resort head offices and with the Forest Service. And it pushed both resorts and their federal landlords to better inform skiers about those risks.
“It showed resorts that a new type of skier – a curious, adventurous skier — was emerging and resorts needed to catch up,” Ferguson said. “In many ways, that was an incredible part of the tragedy. Sadly it came at the cost of four lives. But maybe that’s what it took.”
Peak 7 didn’t just change skiing in Colorado. It ripped four young men from their families. And it tattooed impossible-to-shake memories on everyone who spent time in that icy graveyard turned mogul field.
“It’s just always there with you,” said Mary Logan, whose deck outside her Breckenridge home overlooks Peak 7.
“You see something like that happen and you are definitely changed,” Ahern said. “There’s not a day that I ski that bowl that I don’t remember that day. Really, it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten.”