HOW A BRECKENRIDGE AVALANCHE 35 YEARS AGO CHANGED THE TRAJECTORY OF COLORADO SKIING ~ Colorado Sun

The Peak 7 avalanche at Breckenridge on Feb. 18, 1987, killed four young men and triggered an extreme-terrain arms race in Colorado as well as a now 35-year-old debate over ski area boundaries, personal responsibility and acceptable risks.

Jason Blevins

Feb 18, 2022

Breckenridge ski patroller Mary Logan, third from left, speaks with a survivor of the Peak 7 avalanche on Feb. 19, 1987, at the ski area. (Provided by Nick Logan)

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. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

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. 

Ski patrollers on the 23-acre avalanche debris in Peak 7 Bowl at Breckenridge ski area on February 1987, to gather data and take measurements of where the victims were found. (Provided by Nick Logan)

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.  

Peak 7 Bowl, at far right, in Breckenridge ski area on Feb. 15. A large avalanche killed four skiers who passed the ski area boundary gates with warning signs in February 1987 in the Peak 7 Bowl. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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. 

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

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