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Avalanche near La Manga Pass
Looking across at large pieces of the hard slab in the debris from an avalanche Saturday near La Manga Pass where a snowmobiler went missing. The search continued Monday in southern Colorado for the missing snowmobiler, whose body was located around middday Monday. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center photo)

The body of a snowmobiler buried and killed in an avalanche Saturday in southern Colorado was discovered by officials midday Monday, marking the seventh avalanche death already this winter.

Officials found the victim on the third day of searching. Photos and videos posted online showed dozens of volunteers and officials at the avalanche site searching and probing for the missing rider. The avalanche caught him at about 10,600 feet on the Red Lakes trailhead near La Manga Pass, in Conejos County.

He was riding with a group of four others when the avalanche happened, according to the preliminary report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Current season avalanche deaths now match the 2021-22 season total of seven, and avalanche season is far from over. CAIC Director Ethan Greene said Monday that the 2022-23 avalanche death toll is cause for concern, having already surpassed Colorado’s yearly average of six deaths.

“We’re not in a very good position,” Greene said. “The most deadly months in Colorado are January, February, March. It’s the end of February … and we still have a fair amount of avalanche season left. It’s not where we’d like to be.”

It was a deadly weekend across southern Colorado — two backcountry skiers died Saturday morning in an avalanche near the Vallecito Reservoir. The skiers were identified Monday as James Sutton, 67, of Durango and Jurgen Montgomery, 47, of Pagosa Springs. CAIC’s avalanche danger rating for the area was level 3 out of 5, or “considerable,” on Saturday. Another snowmobiler was injured in a third avalanche in the Hourglass Pass near Wolf Creek Pass.

Colorado had a series of big snowstorms come through the southern mountains leading into the weekend, Greene said, which, along with powerful winds, contributed to risky conditions on the slopes.

Avalanche danger remains significant early this week, according to CAIC forecasting. The southern mountains and parts of the central mountains will have “considerable” risk Tuesday. Those regions will have “very dangerous avalanche conditions” by Wednesday after storms pass through, the center said in an Instagram post.

Scott Stearns, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said to expect systems coming through this week, dropping about 6-10 inches by Tuesday in parts of the high country. More storms are expected to drop more significant snowfall through the rest of the week, but the precipitation should diminish significantly by the weekend, he said.

“By Saturday morning, it’s looking pretty quiet,” Stearns said. “Not until Sunday evening, really Monday morning, do we see things pick up again.”

Avalanche deaths in the high country are preventable if recreational visitors stay alert and make careful preparations before hitting the slopes, Greene said. It’s absolutely necessary to take proper precautions, he said. Take avalanche safety training, either from instructional videos online or a formal safety course in the field. Additionally, he said, no one should make a trip without the necessary safety equipment, including an avalanche rescue transceiver, a probe pole, and a shovel. 

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But the most important thing, Greene said, is monitoring the daily CAIC avalanche forecast, which covers the coming 48 hours. It’s crucial to make plans for an outing with a full understanding of slope conditions and local risks, he said — that’s the best way to avoid disaster.

“There’s lots that you can do to keep yourself safe from avalanches by choosing where you go and when you go,” Greene said.