The sacred site where nomads once hunted woolly mammoths and Native Americans survived the Long Walk is under siege from the federal government
Spring 1973: My first glimpse of the Bears Ears country was a revelation.
Every square foot of earth has its own compulsive magic, Lawrence Durrell once wrote.
Here in the lost dry canyon country of Southern Utah was the absolute living proof, with enough square footage to reach the vanishing point of the western horizon, as far as the eye could see, extending even beyond the eye’s imagination.
My friend and I had just driven up the switchbacks out of Paradox Valley in the corner of southwestern Colorado, and we were gazing across into Utah. Well, the road map said it was Utah, but that was clearly wrong. This country before us didn’t belong to the 20th century, the Industrial Age, the Beehive State … it lay in a kind of Altered State, the zone the experts relegate to dreams, hallucinations and visions.
We had reached a kind of frontier in space and time, and we were gazing down into the very bedrock of North America, a petrified world of towers, domes, minarets, mazes, abysses, with mountains like the Abajos, La Sals and Henrys rearing up here and there, and roan cliffs topped by bone-white mesas without names.
Over the following decades, my friends and I spend months, whole seasons, lost years’ worth of timeless time roaming the Cedar Mesa/Bears Ears country, from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River in the south, to the Abajo Mountains and Indian Creek to the north, and west to the Escalante canyons.
After a time, the landscape seems to hear our voices and footsteps, our scrambling descents into lost sepulchers, the paddle and splash of our rafts and kayaks down remote river gorges; the earth here listens, and sometimes replies.
One winter evening, hiking alone down Kane Gulch to its junction with the main canyon, I find myself standing in the trail facing Junction Ruin, an ancient Anasazi village site perched on the side of the opposite cliff. The shadows are deepening, and it is getting cold. I consider where to make camp and how to conjure a campfire out of sticks and shreds of bark when a strange thought comes to me out of nowhere. “I wish I would see an owl,” I hear myself say aloud.
A moment later, a shadow emerges from the ghostly riprap walls of the ruin and flies toward me, swift as an arrow. I stand there transfixed as an owl, silent as sleep, grazes my forehead then vanishes behind me up the gulch. Something drifts down in its wake and lands near my feet: a Great Horned Owl’s feather from one of the bird’s great wings, a feather barred dark on white, to mingle with moonlight, starlight and shadow. Great Horned Owl, Né’éshjaá in Navajo language.
PAST AS MYSTERY
We are just strangers, trespassers here, no matter what we believe. Some 30,000 years ago, Neolithic nomads hunted wooly mammoths in this place and in the neighboring mountains. It was a wetter, richer world, watered by the shrinking glaciers; some of their major kill sites have been unearthed as far away as Aspen. They pressure-flaked elegant points and tools and may have lived in pit houses, or as likely moved from camp to camp. To anthropologists, they are a koan, wrapped in a riddle and bound in musk ox twine: a complete mystery. We do not know their lives in detail.
They were part of the great wave of wandering hunters, people from Central Asia and Siberia who crossed the Bering land bridge into an unpopulated New World, walking eventually to South America, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.
A LIVING LANDSCAPE
Jump ahead 2,000 years. The landscape had become drier, much as it is today, and the Anasazi, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo tribes, were struggling to survive, farming despite fickle springs, rainfalls and snowmelts, hunting in the wilderness. In this place, they prospered for a while and then vanished.
On the constant edge of survival, they found time to create breathtaking art on pottery and on the rock landscape itself, before a mega-drought and the resulting wars over dwindling resources drove them out.
The greatest art gallery in North America lies under southern Utah. Follow a crooked crevice into a shadowy niche and there, pecked in the rock, is a school of tadpoles that almost wiggle as you watch them. You think, tadpoles, in the desert? And then you remember some rainy springtimes out here, when every tinaja and pool in the rock rang with courting frogs, and what springs like that must have meant to dry-land farmers like the Anasazi. Which also explains the shamanic figure you saw carved on a rock, a magus standing under his own private rainstorm … It must be nice, it must be nice, to have the Rain Gods on your side.
In other places across these rocks, you see snakes that turn into lightning bolts, and the fertility god Kokopelli with his humpback full of seeds and his flute and his titanic erection, and a head that sometimes sprouts antennae like a cricket, the kind that sing in the ripening corn plants.
You also discover desert big horn and elk, cranes, grizzly bear tracks, star systems, warriors holding scalps that still weep streams of tears, dancers, men with birds’ heads for bodies, and gods with no heads at all … and rows of disembodied heads wearing their enemies’ faces (or so some say).
The best of them jump out at you, like a Klee or a Picasso, from a cliff by the trail or high on a rimrock — a canvas no human has seen since the artist walked away centuries ago, thinking thoughts we can only guess.
The descendants of the Anasazi still come here on pilgrimages to their ancestral graves and holy places; they chant and burn cedar and sage at springs — still marked with the signs of the clans, two millenia old, to which they still belong, though they live in pueblos in the distant south.
This landscape is still very much alive in their spirits. And for the Utes and Navajo, who still live around here, even more so.
Mark Maryboy lives in Montezuma Creek, on the San Juan River, but he was actually born in the Bears Ears, on the high-forested edge of the Abajos. His family’s clan took refuge there after returning from the infamous 1864 Long Walk, where those alive after Kit Carson’s ethnic cleansing campaign across Navajo country were forced into exile at Bosque Redondo. Close to a third of the exiles died before the rest straggled home.
Maryboy, now in his 50s, has seen his life begin with the Bears Ears and return there. When we meet at the Twin Rocks Trading Post cafe in the little town of Bluff, I remind him that we met 30 odd years ago, when he first ran for election for San Juan County commissioner. Back then, gerrymandering and deliberate voter suppression had denied the county’s Navajos, half of the county’s population, any say in the political system they lived under.
It took courage for him to run; during his election campaign, I clearly remember overhearing local sheriff’s deputies in a Bluff cafe talk about lynching the young man after Maryboy announced his candidacy. When I ask him about it today, he just laughs. He is still tough as saddle leather, rides broncos on the Navajo Nation rodeo circuit, and keeps up a sheep camp south by Red Mesa, when he isn’t running his consulting business out of Montezuma Creek.
Maryboy’s people have always been leaders. His family are related to the legendary Navajo hero Manuelito. When they returned from the Long Walk, the family deliberately chose to settle next to Bears Ears, away from the U.S. government’s representatives in the central part of the reservation. Reminiscing about his forebears, he mentions in particular his great grandfather, Owl, who seems to have been preternaturally wise and strong. Maryboy’s grandfather became a member of the Navajo Tribal Council, representing the Navajo north of the San Juan. The council met at the tribal capital in Window Rock, N.M., and every month for years he rode his horse 159 miles south to Window Rock and 159 miles home when the meetings were over.
When he was 6 years old, Maryboy’s family was living across the San Juan from Bluff when word came that Bobby Kennedy was coming through Bluff. His uncle walked with him across the river on the old wooden footbridge.
Somehow, the little boy ended up face to face with the fiery young barnstormer, and something passed between them — perhaps it was the beginning of the awakening of Maryboy’s rare talent, to think locally and globally, across cultural and racial barriers, at the same time.
Later, as the lone Navajo on the three-person San Juan County Commission, he was continually subjected to a campaign of racial insults and slurs from the other two commissioners, both white Mormon not-so-good old boys. He doesn’t go into detail about what he was subjected to except to say, with a rueful smile, “It was bad.”
Maryboy, brilliant but shy, was raised to be polite and deferential to strangers. Lost in the nakedly intolerant world of southeast Utah politics — San Juan County has been called “the most racist county in America” — it was difficult for him to say what was on his mind and in his heart.
Finally, in desperation, he went to see the foremost of the local hatali (the word is customarily translated as “Singers,” but they are really healers — of people and the world around them). The Singer used crystals as divining rods to diagnose what was freezing Maryboy’s tongue in his mouth. After using the appropriate medicine to cure him, he told Maryboy he had given him the courage to speak out and the skill to use it.
From then on, Maryboy openly battled his opponents on the commission, giving as good as he got.
Eloquence and wit are two of the Navajos’ most striking characteristics, in my observation. When I was a young grad student, working on the reservation, I stopped once at a trading post. A 40ish Navajo in a cowboy hat and dusty jeans stopped me in the aisle.
“Poor Elvis,” he said sadly. The King had been dead for decades, but I agreed, yes.
It was sad. He looked me in the eye pityingly and nodded, “Elvis and Hitler, the White Man’s greatest leaders — dead!” This last word intoned almost like a moan and, shaking his head mournfully, he turned and walked away. I could almost hear the laughter bubbling deep inside him.
Beginning in 2010, Navajos living in southeastern Utah began evolving a plan for a national monument to protect the area. Maryboy and a group of other Navajos interviewed dozens of tribal elders and collected a great trove of traditional stories confirming the long Navajo connection with the land, how its geography is woven into the tribe’s religion. Over the following years, a coalition of Native American tribes with religious and cultural ties to Cedar Mesa, the Abajos, the Escalante Canyons, including the Utes, Hopis, Zunis and one or two Rio Grande pueblos, began recording their own connections to the area.
In 2014, San Juan County, where most of the monument would be located, inaugurated a 45-day public comment period. The result: 65 percent of respondents favored the monument. In response, county commissioner Phil Lyman celebrated his 50th birthday by leading an armed corps of followers on ATVs on an illegal gathering in Recapture Wash, one of the most important Anasazi sites still revered by modern Puebloans. He was tossed in jail for his crime; he and his followers remained unrepentant.
Despite everything, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition presented its plan for the monument to President Barack Obama on Oct. 15, 2015. The proposed monument would protect the 1.35 million acres, its breathtaking landscapes, its ancient art and architecture and its countless living religious sites, from the threat of further damage and destruction. It would be a different kind of park, one that would preserve Native American religious and cultural rights while preserving the non-mechanized wilderness recreation opportunities for hikers, river rafters, rock climbers and wanderers.
It was a marvelously original concept: The Park Service and the Native American tribes would jointly administer it, with the public’s right to revel in beauty and the Native Americans’ right to religious freedom both guaranteed in perpetuity.
The Obama Administration strongly supported the idea, and on Dec. 28, 2016, by executive proclamation, it formally announced the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument. But then the dream froze in space, where it remains.
Utah politicians tend to loathe wilderness (even though, ironically, their state thrives on it). As soon as the national political scene changed, they seized their chance.
On Dec. 4, 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump announced that Bears Ears National Monument would be downsized by 85 percent – more than a million acres, reducing it to 201,876 acres in two enclaves dozens of miles apart. The executive order would open up the rest of this most splendid territory to oil and potash mining, not to mention uncontrolled off-road hot rodding and the inevitable looting of archeological sites.
Currently, the fate of Bears Ears is tied up in a tangle of court cases, its future in doubt. No one knows how long the process will take, nor how it will end. On one side are the usual suspects, led by the oil companies and mining industries and their lobbyists and political allies — a powerful cabal, especially in today’s political climate.
But the other side is strong, and getting stronger: It now includes environmental groups like The Wilderness Society, the leaders of the outdoor industry, led by Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia, and Native American tribes all across the country. Even the United Nations Human Rights Council has issued a statement supporting the monument on the grounds of religious freedom.
One longtime San Juan River guide, a belagona with the heart of a Navajo, asked: “If they’re going to start tearing down people’s holy places, why don’t they start with the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City?”
Indeed, the Bears Ears case may compel the courts to resolve a question as ancient as America: If a people’s holiest sites are mountains, lakes or mesas, aren’t they due the same respect as man-made shrines, the cathedrals and mosques of other faiths?
Two skiers extracted, more may still be missing
According to a press release from the resort, an “inbounds avalanche” occurred in chute four on Kachina Peak just before noon, burying at least two people near the base of the run.
Members of Taos Ski Valley Ski Patrol and other first responders searching the snow had extracted two skiers just before 1 p.m. and performed CPR on them, but are uncertain if anyone else may have been buried in the slide.
According to Chris Stagg, vice president of public affairs for the ski valley, the skiers – both male – were still alive as of 2 p.m. and had been taken down the mountain to the resort’s Mogul Medical Clinic.
Other rescuers are using avalanche probes, shovels and the help of rescue dogs to search the area of the avalanche for anyone else who may still be buried beneath the snow, Stagg said.
According to Taos News photographer Morgan Timms, who was at the scene of the accident on Thursday, the snow from the avalanche is so deep that the probes, which are as long as 30 feet, could not reach the bottom of the snowpack.
A woman at the scene of the rescue effort who spoke with Timms on the condition of anonymity said she could see – and hear – the moment of the collapse.
“I see two people trying to come down and a third person on the left. They were really good skiers it looked like,” she said and then directed Timms attention to a point near the top of the steep run. “I turned my back to put my bindings on … and then I heard a sound. It sounded like an earthquake coming.”
The witness said a cloud of snow rushed down the run, but she couldnt’ see how many people were buried once the slide settled.
Medics with Taos County Emergency Services and firefighters with Taos Volunteer Fire Department are on standby at the base of the resort as the search continues.
The Kachina Peak Ski Valley lift, which provides easy access to expert terrain at the top of the mountain, opened on Jan. 15. It was built in 2015, providing access to sections of the mountain which were previously only accessible on foot.
Stagg said members of the mountain’s ski patrol team had detonated explosives in the area of Kachina Peak early Thursday morning in an effort to reduce the risk of avalanche.
While the rescue operation continues into Thursday afternoon, the Kachina Peak lift has been closed and lift four has been closed temporarily. Other lifts are still operating.
This is a developing story.
Photographer Morgan Timms and Cody Hooks contributed to this report.
One skier dies, second critically injured after avalanche at Taos Ski Valley
Ski resort begins investigation
Updated Jan. 17 at 10:14 p.m.
One man has died and another remained hospitalized with critical injuries Thursday night (Jan. 17) after an avalanche near Kachina Peak in Taos Ski Valley.
Holy Cross Hospital CEO Bill Patten confirmed that one of the men who was treated at their facility in Taos had died of his injuries just before 5 p.m.
Officials had not released the identity of either victim as of late Thursday night.
According to a press release from the ski resort, which is one of the largest in Northern New Mexico, an “inbounds avalanche” occurred in chute “K3” just before noon, burying the two skiers near the 12,481-foot peak.
Rescuers searching the base of the couloir extracted the men just before 1 p.m. Medics then performed CPR before rushing them to a clinic at the base of the resort.
According to a report heard on Taos Central Dispatch, a medic transporting one of the men in an ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital said she had “one male trauma patient,” for whom she had established an IV and an intubator, a medical device that helps a person breath when they are unconscious.
The second victim also suffered critical injuries and was flown by helicopter to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.
As of press time Thursday night, he was still being treated at the facility.
The search for others who might have been buried in the avalanche was called off after 2 p.m., with rescuers determining there to be “no additional victims,” according to the resort’s press release.
During their search, dozens of rescuers used avalanche probes, shovels and the help of search-and-rescue dogs to search the area under the peak for anyone else who might have been swept under the snow.
According to Taos News photographer Morgan Timms, who was at the scene of the accident on Thursday, the accumulation created by the avalanche was so deep that the probes could not reach the bottom of the snowpack in some areas.
A woman at the scene who spoke with Timms on the condition of anonymity said she could see – and hear – the moment the snow collapsed on Thursday.
“I see two people trying to come down and a third person on the left. They were really good skiers it looked like,” she said. “I turned my back to put my bindings on … and then I heard a sound. It sounded like an earthquake coming.”
The witness said a cloud of snow rushed down the run, but she couldn’t see how many people had been buried once it settled. Rescuers at the scene, however, ultimately determined that no one else was buried in the accident.
The Kachina Peak Ski Valley lift, which provides easy access to expert terrain at the mountain’s peak, opened this season on Jan. 15. It was built in 2015, providing access to sections of the mountain which were previously only accessible on foot.
Chris Stagg, vice president of public relations at the resort, said members of the Taos ski patrol team had detonated explosives in the area of Kachina Peak early Thursday morning in an effort to reduce the risk of an avalanche.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the resort is located has received significant snowfall since the new year after a series of storms.
An employee at the ski valley for over 46 years, Stagg said he could not recall an incident like the one that happened on Thursday.
“It’s certainly very rare,” he said.
Signs are posted to warn skiers and snowboarders that the terrain around Kachina Peak can be dangerous, he said, but no special equipment, such as a beacon that can be used to locate avalanche victims, is required to ride the lift to reach it.
This is a developing story.
Reporters Morgan Timms, Jesse Moya and Cody Hooks contributed to this report.
Red Mountain Pass 4″/0.20
Molas Pass 2″/0.15
Coal Bank Pass 4.5″/0.55
Samuel L. Jackson showed off his formidable poetry slam skills during The Tonight ShowStarring Jimmy Fallon, where he took on the government shutdown news and President Trump’s border wall. The Roots set the mood with a jazzy soundtrack as host Jimmy Fallon and Jackson took turns at the mic.
Fallon led off the slam, launching with a joke on the Oscars not having a host. “Might seem wrong without an opening song, but the show must go on” he quipped. “Besides it’s still gonna be nine hours long. Yawn,” Fallon added, snapping to the rhythm. The pair took turns, with Fallon also addressing winter storms and New Year’s resolutions.
Jackson joined in for the snaps before taking center stage to lament the government shutdown. “Longest shut down in history,” he began, drawling out the first word for emphasis. “The record is beat, what a feat/People hitting the street while the elite compete/Resources deplete,” he rhymed. “If only they could shut down the President’s tweets.”
The actor also lambasted Trump’s drive for a Mexican border wall. “Wall, wall, wall,” Jackson repeated. “Wall, wall, wall, is that all, all, all you can say?/I don’t care if it’s concrete, steel or papier mâché/Guess what, Donald, Mexico ain’t gonna pay/No way, Jose.”
Before he could finish his couplets, Fallon cut him off from delivering the swear word he is famous for using. “So cut it out, ’cause we ain’t no suckers,” Jackson said. “Come up with the money yourself, you cheap motherf–.”
However, Jackson continued and got the bleep treatment. “The TSA is M.I.A./They’re calling in sick, ’cause the government’s shut down and work is a bitch/So keep your laptop in the bag/And keep those shoes on, the workers are gone/So just blame it on Don. Things are sliding past security/Man, it’s getting insane,” he asserted as his voice rose for the ultimate punchline. “I’ve had it with these mother(bleep) snakes on these mother(bleep) plane.”
Combination of factors contributed to man’s death
Eric Ming photo
Several misjudgments led to an avalanche that killed a backcountry skier participating in a Silverton Avalanche School course earlier this month, according to a report.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center released its final report Wednesday about the avalanche that occurred Jan. 5 near Red Mountain Pass, in an area known as Upper Senator Beck Basin at about 13,000 feet in elevation.
The CAIC report identified three critical factors that led to the fatal avalanche:
The group was traveling together down the mountain, which resulted in all six people being caught in the avalanche.The group misjudged the avalanche danger for the terrain they were traversing.The group failed to take into account the risk of triggering avalanches on adjacent slopes.“It took all those events together to produce a death,” said Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC.
The group of skiers were taking part in a Level 2 course, a three-day program for advanced backcountry skiers, with the Silverton Avalanche School based at the St. Paul Lodge outside Silverton.
The Silverton Avalanche School declined to comment Wednesday but said the school would issue a news release later today.
According to CAIC’s report, the six-person group had meticulously planned a route to minimize risk and avoid areas with high avalanche danger.
The area had been classified as “considerable” on an avalanche risk scale during the days leading up to the slide, with numerous avalanches reported. On the day the group went out, the avalanche risk had dropped a notch to “moderate.”
For most of the day, the skiers were able to avoid avalanche areas and reach the top of South Telluride Peak, the CAIC report said.
On the way down, however, things took a turn for the worse.
The group had two options for its descent: go back the way it came, which Greene said would have been the safer option, or take a different route that entered more “complicated” terrain to read for avalanche danger. The group chose the more complicated route.
The Silverton Avalanche School guide was the first to go down, followed by student Peter Marshall, 40, of Longmont. The rest of the group then followed behind.
It’s not clear who triggered the avalanche, but it caught all the skiers, carrying them downhill. Only the guide, who is not identified in the report, and Marshall, however, were buried.
The first avalanche then triggered a larger, second avalanche on an adjacent slope, burying Marshall under 8 feet of snow. It’s estimated the crown face of the second avalanche was 36 inches.
The second avalanche did not reach the guide, who was able to unbury himself.
The guide and the rest of the group, who were not buried, turned on their beacons to try to locate Marshall. It took about 50 minutes to find and dig Marshall out of the snow. The group then tried, unsuccessfully, to revive him.
Greene said that rather than assigning blame, it is important to use the fatality as a learning experience.
For one, it’s basic backcountry travel protocol to travel one-at-a-time down a slope. That way, if an avalanche is triggered, it is more likely the slide will catch only one person.
Greene also said the group, while planning its route at the hut, got only part of the avalanche forecast for that day.
Had the group read the entire report, it would have known that even if group members were in terrain with low-avalanche potential, there was still a high potential for triggering avalanches on adjacent slopes, which is exactly what happened.
The group had read the full report for the previous day, which contained that information, but that does not excuse not reading the entire avalanche report on the day the class went into the backcountry, Greene said.
“They didn’t read the whole report, and they missed that,” he said.
None of the members saw whether the first avalanche buried Marshall, before the wall of the second avalanche came down, the report said. But it is clear the second avalanche dumped more snow on top of him.
It was also noted in the report that Marshall was wearing an airbag backpack, but the bag had not been deployed.
“He got hit by a big wall of snow, so we don’t know if a bag would have helped, but it’s possible,” Greene said.
Marshall’s death marks the first avalanche fatality in Colorado this year, as well as the first death in the Silverton Avalanche School’s nearly six-decade history.
“This tragic accident impacts all of us, and our deepest condolences go out to the family,” the school wrote on its Facebook page a few days after the avalanche. “Our number one priority at this time is ensuring the safety and well-being of the family of the victim and the students and staff involved in the accident.”
Motorbikes start on the sand followed by a TV helicopter during stage 5 of the 2019 Dakar Rally between Moquegua and Arequipa on January 11, 2019, on Los Palos beach.
Honda’s Chilean biker Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo competes during stage 8 of the Dakar 2019 between San Juan de Marcona and Pisco, Peru, on January 15, 2019.
The Slovak KTM rider Stefan Svitko competes during stage 6 of the 2019 Dakar Rally on January 13, 2019
KTM Factory Racing’s Toby Price flies across the desert during stage 7 near San Juan de Marcona, Peru, on January 14, 2019
Red Mountain Pass 9″
Molas Pass 9″
Coal Bank Pass 11″
Eric Ming photo
This accident involved two avalanches. The first was a hard slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by the group of skiers, medium sized relative to the path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person (HS-ASu-R2-D2-O). The group triggered the avalanche near a shallow, rocky outcrop. It likely broke on a buried layer of near-surface facets that developed between storms during the first few days of the year. The avalanche stepped down to deeper weak layers near the ground, entraining the entire season’s snowpack. The face of the crown ranged from 12 inches to 54 inches deep. The avalanche released on a south-southeast facing slope around 32 degrees in steepness.
A crack from the first avalanche ran through the snow, releasing a second avalanche (remote trigger) on a connected east-facing slope. The second avalanche was a hard slab, medium sized relative to path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person (HS-ASr-R2-D2-O). Investigators estimated that the average depth of the crown face was 36 inches. The avalanche released on a slope around 35 degrees in steepness.
The debris from both slides overlapped at the bottom of the slope.
Events Leading to the Avalanche
The group met the morning of Friday, January 4, at the beginning of an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) 2 avalanche class at the Silverton Avalanche School (SAS). This is the second course in the recreational curriculum created by the AIARE. The class spent most of the day in Silverton. In the afternoon, ten students and two instructors went to the St. Paul Lodge near the top of Red Mountain Pass. Their plan was to spend the night at the lodge and Saturday in the backcountry. They planned to return to the lodge on Saturday night, and spend Sunday in the backcountry before the course ended on Sunday afternoon.
Friday evening in the lodge, they divided into two groups. The instructors assigned each group a large section of terrain on Red Mountain Pass and asked them to plan a tour for the next day. Group 1 planned to travel to the west side of US 550 and into the area around Senator Beck Mine. Group 2 would stay on the east side of the highway in the Prospect Gulch area. Group 1 spent about 2 hours planning their tour with their instructor (Skier 1). Eventually Skier 1 went to bed, but the rest of the group spent an additional hour on their plan for the next day.
Saturday morning the two groups left the lodge for their day in the field. They met with a staff member of the Silverton Avalanche School, who relayed current weather information, the avalanche danger rating, and the avalanche problem list from the January 5 backcountry avalanche forecast issued by the CAIC. Group 1 descended to the highway, crossed, and headed toward Senator Beck Mine.
Group 1 had a detailed trip plan that included a time schedule, a series of waypoints, and locations where they needed to make decisions. Their ultimate goal was to climb a peak locally known as South Telluride Peak (marked 13510 on USGS maps). They followed their planned route with a minor variation just below treeline. They stopped as planned at their first decision point, below a steep slope just above treeline. They decided that rather than ascend a snow-covered portion of the slope, they would ascended a slightly steeper section of the slope where grass was sticking out of the snow. They used the shallow snow on the southeast aspect to reduce their exposure to avalanches. They continued up the drainage, making observations, and discussing the avalanche conditions. They observed a whumpf in a grassy area of shallow snow, but no other signs of instability. At about 12,700 feet they dug a snow profile on a southeast-facing slope and conducted a series of column tests. None of the tests highlighted instability on a specific layer or showed propensity for crack propagation (STN, CTN, ECTN. Both the ECT and CT broke 57 cm off the ground with continued blows from the shoulder) (AAA 2016). Their route continued uphill towards point 13106 to the west of the Senator Beck Mine. It was almost 2:00 PM and they decided it was time to look for a descent route and return to the highway.
Their trip plan identified two descent options. The first was to descend the same way they had come up. The second was to descend the east side of a small cirque, travel to the northeast to their ascent route, and then descend the way they had come up. They decided on the second route.
After climbing to the top of point 13106, they moved west to the low point of the saddle between point 13106 and the rest of the cirque. Their plan was to descend a south aspect with shallow snow to reduce the risk of avalanches. They discussed moving the group from the saddle to a mid-slope bench where grass was sticking out of the snow. From there they would descend the rest of the slope, before returning to their skin track for the rest of the descent.
The group decided to travel down the first section to the bench in short succession. Skier 1 would start and when he was part way down, Skier 2 would follow. This would continue until the group was all on the bench. Skier 1 explained the plan and also where he wanted the group to travel on the slope, providing a boundary on the skier’s right (west) for them not to cross. He began his descent. Skier 2 followed, traveling a little to the skier’s right (west) of Skier 1. Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 all began sidestepping down the slope so they could see Skiers 1 and 2 as they descended. The snow surface was hard wind-packed snow. Skiers 3, 4, and 6 stopped to adjust equipment and get ready for their descent. Skier 5 continued to sidestep downhill. He saw a crack shoot across the slope and yelled “Avalanche!”
The avalanche caught all six skiers. When the avalanche caught Skier 1, his ski bindings released and he fell forward, traveling head downhill on his belly. He was under the snow at times, but rose to the surface as the debris stopped. He lost both skis and one ski pole. He was carried to the bottom of the slope.
When the first avalanche stopped, Skier 1 was partially buried–not critical (his head was not under avalanche debris). He stood up and saw a second avalanche coming at him from an adjacent slope. The debris from the second avalanche ran over the debris of the first avalanche, but stopped short of Skier 1.
The first avalanche caught Skier 2 and carried him to the bottom of the slope. The rest of the group was preoccupied with their own involvement in the slide, so we do not know Skier 2’s condition at the end of the first avalanche. The second avalanche overran Skier 2’s position in the debris of the first avalanche.
The avalanche carried Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 between 15 and 20 feet downhill. The debris around them remained in large blocks, several feet thick and up to 12 feet wide. Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 stood up in the blocks of debris and looked around. They saw the second avalanche overrunning the debris of the first avalanche, but could not see Skiers 1 and 2.
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