COMMUNICATION CHALLENGES IN “TERRAIN TRAP” CONTRIBUTED TO DEATHS OF THREE SKIERS IN COLORADO AVALANCHE, REPORT SAYS ~ The Colorado Sun & CAIC accident report

A final Colorado Avalanche Information Center report on the slide released Sunday provides details on the deadliest Colorado avalanche since 2013 capping a week where 15 backcountry travelers have died in slides across the U.S.

Jason Blevins

Feb 8, 2021

The San Juan County Search and Rescue team that recovered the skiers included a county commissioner, a town councilman, business owners, local avalanche experts and other residents of Silverton. (Provided by San Juan County SAR) 

Communication challenges in a large group and a “terrain trap” were contributing factors in the deadliest avalanche in the state since 2013, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report on the massive slide that killed three men near Ophir Pass in the San Juans on Feb. 1. 

A skier who was buried but survived the avalanche on South Lookout Peak near Silverton that killed three of his friends described the torrent of snow that engulfed him like “a river.”

“I was fully under snow for approximately 15 to 25 seconds,” the unnamed skier told investigators with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which issued its final report on the deadly avalanche on Sunday.

The report described the challenge of moving a large group — this one was seven skiers — through avalanche terrain as well as how “small communication errors and misunderstandings can be amplified in large groups.” 

The report comes after the deadliest week for avalanches in the United States in more than a century. Counting this South Lookout Mountain tragedy and a slide in Utah’s Millcreek Canyon on Saturday that killed four, 15 people have died in avalanches in the country in the last seven days. 

Three men — Adam Palmer, Seth Bossung and Andy Jessen — were buried and killed in the avalanche. They were among a group of Eagle County locals visiting the Opus Hut. The crew had been skiing in the backcountry around Red Mountain Pass and skied out of Silverton Mountain’s helicopter on Sunday. They skied into the Opus Hut around 1 p.m. on Monday and spent about an hour at the remote cabin before venturing out for an afternoon tour. 

Some of the skiers, like Palmer, had been part of the annual trip to Opus for many years. Others, like Jessen, were new to the trip. All were friends from back home in Eagle. As they left the hut, the caretaker said there had been “lots of [avalanche] activity on all aspects and today is the warmest day since December,” according to the report by CAIC forecasters Spencer Logan, Jeff Davis, Rebecca Hodgetts and Mike Barney.

The crew climbed a short stretch and skied a southwest-facing slope into the drainage between Ophir Pass road — which is closed in winter — and The Nose, a descent on the skier’s left of South Lookout Peak.  They climbed to a ridge toward the top of the The Nose and stopped at a saddle around 11,800 feet. They decided to ski a sparsely treed slope and skied one at a time with a plan to regroup on a small knob just above a steep-walled gully at the bottom of the peak’s face.

“Before the entire group collected on the knob, the first skiers to arrive began skiing down the rest of the slope and into the gully,” reads the report. 

Palmer, Jessen, Bossup and the unnamed fourth man descended the gully, which the report describes as a “terrain trap.” One of them stopped on the right wall of the gully and the fourth skier yelled for him to avoid the steep section of the gully on the right side. All four men were moving down the gully when the avalanche released around 3:20 p.m.

The report says the avalanche came in two waves. The fourth skier was able to pull his avalanche airbag when the first wall of snow released and he was standing in the bottom of the gully when a second wave hit him from behind. 

“He was engulfed in snow and tumbled violently,” the report says. 

The remaining three skiers were able to find the fourth man, whose airbag was visible above the debris. Palmer, Jessen and Bossung, however, were completely buried. 

The CAIC report details the accident in this Feb. 2 photograph. The yellow line shows the group’s route to the knob before descending into the gully. The avalanche outlined in red was triggered by the skiers descending the gully. Avalanches that ran sympathetically are noted in in green and brown. Blue circles indicate the approximate burial locations of the four skiers. The large avalanche to the looker’s left of the fatal avalanche was triggered by explosives to protect searchers. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The four skiers sent an SOS signal on an InReach device around 4:40 p.m. and they were able to detect signals from their friend’s avalanche transceivers. But the closest signals they could detect on their transceivers were between 4 and 5 meters, or about 13 to 16 feet. (For transceiver searching, the digging begins at the lowest reading, which is the closest point to the buried skier.) The four men dug for two hours.

Inside the holes, the signals from the transceivers showed their friends still 5-to-6 feet below. They were able to touch one of their friends with a probe pole from within one hole.

At nightfall, the four men were exhausted and made the “difficult decision” to return to the hut, reads the report. They built snowshoes out of tree branches for the fourth skier who lost his skis in the slide. Around 7:30 p.m. they made contact with San Juan County Search and Rescue members who had organized around 5 p.m. after getting the group’s distress call. The rescuers brought the four men back to the trailhead and suspended search operations until the following morning. 

Searchers recovered two of the men on Tuesday as the Helitrax helicopter operation dropped explosives onto adjacent slopes, triggering several large avalanches. The search team of more than 30 people returned on Wednesday and recovered the third skier. One of the men was buried 9 feet deep. Another was at 11 feet. And the third was buried 20 feet deep in the gully. 

Search teams broke eight shovels and used chainsaws to cut through the cement-like snow to reach the men. 

Looking down the gully where three Eagle County men were killed in an avalanche near Ophir Pass on Feb. 1. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center) 

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides comments on all its fatal accident reports, hoping that insight into the events leading up to the avalanche can help other backcountry travelers avoid getting caught in a slide. 

Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, describes his reports as akin to a newspaper. There are the news reports and the editorial section. In this avalanche, the forecasters highlighted the difficulty in communicating with a large group. Four of the skiers began their descent of the gully before the rest of the skiers arrived at the knob. 

“Yet Rider 1 started down the gully before the rest of the group arrived,” the report says. “He was quickly followed by Riders 2, 3 and 4. There were suddenly four riders in the gully, all out of sight of the people on the knob when the avalanche released.”

“Gullies are bad places to be,” Greene said in an interview Sunday. “A lot of guides and avalanche professionals just avoid them altogether.”

Greene said his staff can’t point to the communication breakdown as a cause for the accident “but it’s definitely something that came out of the discussion that staff had with the people in the group.”

Greene and his team have been working hard this season, which has seen eight people buried and killed in Colorado avalanches, with more winter to come. 

A weak layer of snow buried deep in the snowpack is shedding slabs of new snow. As more snow falls, the stress on that weak layer grows and avalanches hazards rise. 

This is not a normal year, Greene said, who estimates the increased avalanche danger this season is maybe a 1 in 10 occurrence. So, for a skier who has spent 20 years in the Colorado backcountry, this is likely the second time to see this level of widespread avalanche hazard. 

“This is the year to keep things mellow,” Greene said. “This is frustrating for us. Obviously we are not doing enough, but we have been doing everything we normally do plus an incredible amount more. It’s hard to know how successful we are. Maybe if we were not doing what we are doing, things would be worse. But eight people dead by the first week of February — this is not a good place to be.”

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Events Leading to the Avalanche

On Monday, February 1 a group of seven friends met in Silverton for a multi-day trip to a backcountry hut east of Ophir Pass. They ranged in age from mid 30s to mid 50s. Some had been backcountry skiing together for many years, while others were new additions to the group. Several of them had made annual trips into this hut for at least ten years. Four members of the group had been in the area since Friday skiing in the backcountry and with a local helicopter skiing operation. Three members of the group arrived Sunday evening.

The group left Silverton around 10:30 AM and drove to the winter closure of CR8 (Ophir Pass Rd). At the trailhead the group checked transceivers and discussed avalanche conditions. They left the trailhead around 11:30 AM. They identified the south-facing slopes above CR8 as a potential avalanche hazard and traveled one at a time below them to reduce their exposure. They arrived at the hut around 1:00 PM and spent about an hour there before heading out for an afternoon tour.

The group discussed assessing avalanche conditions on a terrain feature known as The Nose, which is between Crystal Lake and the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek. On previous trips they had skied this slope, but did not plan to ski it that afternoon. Before leaving the hut they talked with the hut keeper who said there had been “lots of [avalanche] activity on all aspects, and today is the warmest day since December.”

They left the hut and climbed a short distance before descending a southwest-facing slope into the drainage between CR8 and The Nose.They climbed a gentle ridge to the south heading towards The Nose.They reached a small saddle at about 11,800 feet, and decided to descend a northeast facing, sparsely treed slope. The group rode down one at a time and started to regroup on a knob just above a steep-walled gully at the bottom of the slope. Before the entire group collected on the knob, the first skiers to arrive began skiing down the rest of the slope, and into the gully towards the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek.

Accident Summary

Rider 1 skied down from the knob and into the gully. Riders 2 and 3 followed the same path, skiing close to each other. While Rider 2 continued down the gully, Rider 3 stopped along the skier’s right wall. Rider 4 slid over the convex roll at the gully entrance to yell down, telling Rider 3 to move to the left side of the gully and avoid the steeper slopes on the right. All four were moving down the gully when the avalanche released at about 3:20 PM.

The avalanche caught Riders 1, 2, 3, and 4. Rider 4 described the avalanche as two waves. The first wave slowly pulled him into the gully, but he was able to stay on his feet. Thinking there was enough snow to bury him if he fell over, he deployed the avalanche airbag on his backpack. After the snow stopped he was standing in the gully. Seconds later a larger wave of snow hit him from behind. Rider 4 immediately lost his skis and poles. He was engulfed in snow and tumbled violently. “It felt like I was in a river and I was fully under the snow for approximately 15 to 25 seconds” Rider 4 explained, and was “moving very fast a significant way down the gully”. When the avalanche stopped, Rider 4 was buried in the debris with his head under the snow, but a portion of his airbag was visible on the surface (partially buried-critical). Riders 1, 2, and 3 were completely buried in the avalanche debris.

Comments

All of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate are tragic events. We do our best to describe each one to help the people involved and the community as a whole better understand factors that may have contributed to the outcome. We offer these comments in the hope that it will help people avoid future avalanche accidents.

Moving a large group through avalanche terrain one at a time requires considerable time and careful coordination. Small communication errors and misunderstandings can be amplified in large groups. This challenge may have played a role in this accident. Some of the party expected everyone to regroup on the knob above the gully, yet Rider 1 started down the gully before the rest of the group arrived. He was quickly followed by Riders 2, 3, and 4. There were suddenly four riders in the gully, all out of sight of the people on the knob when the avalanche released.

The avalanche caught the four riders in a narrow gully where debris piled up extremely deep. Rider 4’s position higher in the gully, staying more skier’s left, and his airbag likely all reduced his burial depth. The others were not as lucky, and were deeply buried. In a terrain trap like this gully, the depth of avalanche debris can vary dramatically over a very small distance.

Digging a person out of avalanche debris is by far the most time consuming portion of a rescue. Deep burials are very difficult for a small team to manage. The debris is almost always very hard. Equipment breaks, people tire quickly, and just managing the snow you are removing becomes a monumental task. The four riders worked for hours and only got through the top half of avalanche debris above the victims. Anyone who has dealt with avalanche debris over a few feet deep will tell you the digging gets more difficult and more complicated the deeper you go. Eventually it took an organized search and rescue group, with many people and power tools, two days to recover all three riders.

The group and search and rescue personnel both detected two transceiver signals in close proximity at one of the burial sites. This led them to believe that Riders 2 and 3 were buried very near each other. They eventually determined the signal came from a single avalanche transceiver that was over 10 years old. Over the last 10 years the standards for avalanche rescue transceivers have improved. Although not common, modern transceivers can sometimes recognize the signal from certain old transceivers as two signals, a primary and ghost signal. In this case the age of the skier’s rescue device did not play a significant role in the outcome of the accident. However, it is a good reminder to make sure you understand the performance of the equipment you and your partners are using. Most avalanche rescue organizations and transceiver manufacturers recommend retiring devices that are more than 10 years old.

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