Skier avoids serious injury after being fully buried


A skier was completely buried in the McFarlane’s area on Saturday. The red line shows the track the first skier took into the slide; the yellow line is the upper extent of the crown. The green star shows where the buried skier was dug out after being carried about 20 yards or so.

An avalanche Saturday in the Aspen Mountain Powder Tours permit area on Richmond Ridge buried a person who was unharmed after being rescued by his skiing partner, and the Aspen Skiing Co. confirmed employees were scouting terrain prior to the season opening at the time.

Neither were seriously injured, and both staff members have returned to work, according to Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications. SkiCo operates the powder tours, which opened for the season Sunday.

The first skier, whose name has not been released, was carried at least 20 yards and buried at the base of a tree, according to a report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. His partner probed and dug out the man, who was conscious and uninjured at the time, the report says.

The reporting party for Saturday’s slide was Murray Cunningham, the CAIC website says. Cunningham is the SkiCo’s Powder Tours manager, according to the Linkedin website.

The report states the incident occurred as the two “were traversing one at a time out of McFarlane’s [a section of Richmond Ridge]. Skier one [released] the toe of the skier’s left side of the B Nose. He was carried 20 yards or so and buried at the base of a tree. Skier two performed a beacon search on the slide track. Located the burial site, probed and dug out.”

The incident was reported to CAIC around 3 p.m. Saturday, according to Brian Lazar, deputy director. Based in Carbondale, he said the avalanche danger on Saturday was rated as “considerable at all locations.” Conditions were ranked level 3 out of a possible five levels.

“It’s not a blanket ‘don’t go into the backcountry,’” Lazar said about the avalanche watch issued Saturday, but rather that mountain users “need conservative and cautious route-finding.”

Mountain Rescue Aspen was not requested to respond to Saturday’s human-triggered slide on the back side, according to Scott Messina, rescue leader coordinator for MRA.

“This avalanche, as well as the skier-triggered slide just below Loge Lift at Highlands ski area and other skier-triggered slides on Richmond Hill yesterday, are great reminders to all backcountry travelers that winter avalanche season is here,” Messina said Monday in an email.

Hanle also noted that on Saturday, “a snowboarder on Aspen Mountain triggered a small inbounds slide in a closed area.” It was discovered by ski patrol around 4 p.m. when patrol was doing its sweep of the mountain.

“The slide was not witnessed and occurred in the closed area between Northstar and the Gent’s Ridge chair. Patrol searched the slide area with probes, beacons and dogs as a precaution,” Hanle said. “If you are involved in or aware of a slide please notify ski patrol so they know everyone is safely out.”

Lazar said so far in Colorado this season, seven people have been caught in avalanches, though most are what he categorized as “on the small side.”

Referring to the Richmond Ridge incident, “This is the first burial we’ve seen this year according to our records.” He added that the CAIC is still gathering details as it works on a full incident report.

“Whenever people return home safely, that’s great news on our part,” Lazar added.

On Oct. 15 in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a climber sustained a broken pelvis from a self-triggered slide. He had to self-rescue. That’s considered the most serious injury yet this season from a slide, according to Lazar.

The season is setting up to be “one that can lead to prolonged avalanche problems in Colorado,” he said. An October snowfall that did not melt away became a weak layer for snow that fell consistently during November. Saturday’s instability was enhanced by strong winds, drifting snow and slab formation.

The worst year in Colorado for avalanche fatalities was 1993, when 12 people lost their lives, Lazar said.

On April 8, valley resident John Galvin died after being caught in a slide in Maroon Bowl, which is considered “side country” to the Aspen Highlands ski area boundary. Galvin’s partner was able to rescue himself and alert authorities about the avalanche.

The men who were involved in Saturday’s Richmond Ridge incident were prepared with avalanche beacons, shovels, probes and each other, Lazar said of the importance of skiing with a partner. He recommended taking an avalanche course to know how to properly use the equipment.

MRA’s Messina reminded that, “If travelers have not yet done so, it’s time for folks to break out their avalanche gear, practice with it and refresh themselves on smart travel techniques.”




Aspen Mtn Powder Tours staffer survives complete burial by avalanche


In this picture filed with a report at the CAIC website, the short vertical line in the center shows the skier’s path. The skier was caught in a slide and dug out where the star is posted. The longer line shows the extent of the avalanche in the McFarlane’s area off of Richmond Ridge.

An employee with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours was completely buried in an avalanche Saturday on Richmond Ridge and then located and rescued by a colleague, according to Aspen Skiing Co. and a report filed with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The two employees were “scouting” terrain prior to the powder tour operation opening for the winter, Skico Vice President of Operations Jeff Hanle said Monday. The skiers were traversing one at a time out of the McFarlane’s area south of the Silver Queen Gondola when the first skier triggered an avalanche, according to a report filed with the avalanche information center by longtime powder tour employee Murray Cunningham.

“He was carried 20 yards or so and buried at the base of a tree,” Cunningham reported. “Skier two performed a beacon search on the slide track, located the burial site, probed and dug out skier one, conscious and uninjured.”

The names of the two workers weren’t included in the report.

Hanle elaborated that the buried skier suffered “bumps and bruises” and was back at work Sunday. Skico owns the powder tour operation. Hanle said it was deemed safe to open to the public Sunday despite Saturday’s avalanche. The scouting helped the tour operation staff determine what terrain could be used, he said.

The avalanche was reported on a slope with a northeast aspect at an estimated elevation of 10,500 feet and an average slope angle of about 35 degrees, according to Cunningham’s report. The incident occurred while a quick-hitting snowstorm blew through the Roaring Fork Valley and left several inches of snow in higher elevations.

As a result, there were “avalanches everywhere” in the Aspen area, according to another backcountry adventurer who filed a report with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The reporting party said he and a companion were in the process of photographing two skier-triggered avalanches on Harris’s Headwall along Richmond Ridge “when we watched a solo skier trigger a third avalanche next to the previous two avalanches.”

Additional avalanches were reported in multiple slide paths visible from the Marble quarry road and even in the Aspen ski areas. A skier triggered a slide, apparently Sunday, near the top of the Loge chairlift at Aspen Highlands, which was closed at the time.

“Good reminder that closed avalanche terrain at the ski areas should be treated as backcountry,” wrote Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in a field observation report.

Another incident occurred on Aspen Mountain on Saturday. Ski patrol discovered a snowboard track heading into an area where a small slide was triggered on inbounds but closed terrain between the Northstar trail and the Gent’s Ridge chair, Hanle said. The discovery was made while the patrol was performing its sweep at about 4 p.m.

“No one witnessed it so they had to stop and do a full search,” Hanle said.

Patrollers probed, used beacons and avalanche rescue dogs as a precaution. They found no one caught in the slide.

Skico is asking skiers and snowboarders to respect all closures within the ski areas. Also, if a person is involved in or is aware of a slide, they should report it to the patrol, Hanle said.

Lazar said much of the backcountry in Colorado is set up with a weak layer of snow once again this season. A decent amount of snow fell in mid-October.

“That’s always a worry,” he said.

That earlier snow either melts to the ground or temperatures stay cold and the earlier layer gets buried by new snow, Lazar said. The October snow remained on many aspects this year, then got buried by the November snowfall.

“That loaded and tested those buried, weak layers,” Lazar said.

The result, the avalanche information center’s website said, is the weak layer flunked its test. That’s what resulted in so many avalanches over the weekend. The avalanche forecast for the Aspen zone was for moderate conditions today, reduced from considerable Monday. Nevertheless, backcountry travelers were advised by the experts to be patient.

“The season is young and the snowpack is adjusting to the first large load,” CAIC said in its forecast.

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