Feb 28, 2022
The accident highlights an industry at a crossroads and raises a crucial question: As safety schools boom, who is responsible for making sure the students come home?
Tyler George stood up in the 132-year-old building he was raised in, surrounded by what is typically one of the most dangerous snowpacks in America, and stared at a roomful of backcountry skiers who were there to learn how not to die in an avalanche.
It was Friday night, January 4, 2019, the first day of a three-day advanced-safety course taught by the Silverton Avalanche School (SAS) in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
The course was based at the St. Paul Lodge, a backcountry refuge owned by George’s family that sits just above 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass. George, 40, was working as the hutkeeper that weekend, but he knew the snowpack intimately and had taken his first snow-safety course as a teenager. His father, noted British mountaineer and avalanche educator Chris George, started teaching for SAS around 1980, and Tyler grew up in its midst. Sandy Kobrock, the lead instructor, often called him to get a read on local conditions, and had asked him to address the Level 2 class of ten students and one assistant instructor. After dinner, the six-foot-four, blond-haired and blue-eyed George stood at the table and explained that he had seen a number of large avalanches run recently, that the snowpack remained fragile, and that weird things were happening. “I’ve backed off more lines this year than I have in a long time,” he said. “You know, there is no shame in just walking away from something and saying, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ ”
After he spoke, George went into the kitchen to do dishes. The students split into two groups of five and began planning their routes for the next day. One group, led by Kobrock, intended to dig snow pits nearby, on the east side of Highway 550, in relatively flat terrain where avalanches weren’t a concern. The other group, led by a 26-year-old guide named Zach Lovell, was planning a longer ski tour. Lovell handed his students topographical maps of the west side of Highway 550, including upper Senator Beck Basin—an area that past generations of school staff had avoided due to its steep terrain—and gave them instructions to identify risky slopes and chart a route that avoided them. The maps came from a program called CalTopo that uses colored shading to denote a slope’s steepness. The group spent hours plotting options under the glow of headlamps. As they homed in on a likely route, Lovell provided photos of the terrain to supplement the maps.
Ultimately, they decided to climb for two miles and 2,300 vertical feet into Senator Beck, topping out on a 13,510-foot summit known locally as South Telluride Peak. They were determined to minimize exposure to avalanche terrain, which generally means slopes steeper than 30 degrees, but only Lovell and one of the students had ever been to the basin. Satisfied that their plan achieved that objective, they went to sleep around 10:30 P.M.
The next morning, Dave Marshall, a member of Kobrock’s group, started having an eerie feeling about the day. His son, Pete, was in the other group, and Dave worried about the safety of their route. And George, who normally would go skiing or do chores while the class was in the field, was asked by Kobrock, just before she left with her students to dig snow pits, if he would hang around the lodge with a radio as a safety measure—something he’d never been asked to do in more than two decades of hosting avalanche courses at the lodge. A few minutes later, Lovell, hurrying out the door, told George that his group intended to ascend a series of short benches known as the Landry Sneak into Senator Beck Basin. It was the first George had heard of their plan, and he knew it meant two things: their terrain choice carried potential avalanche risk, and the two groups would be miles apart. George told Lovell he didn’t think it was a good idea. Lovell looked at George “almost like I was speaking a different language,” George recalls, and did not respond.
Lovell and his students departed at 9:15 and met Jasper Thompson, the course’s safety officer, halfway down their short ski to the highway. Thompson read aloud the day’s avalanche forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: for the first time in ten days, the CAIC had dropped the danger from considerable (level three of five) to moderate (level two)—a sign that the snowpack had stabilized. But moderate is a notoriously fickle rating, because it means that human-triggered avalanches are still possible. (From 1996 to 2006, half of all Colorado avalanche deaths, which average about five per year, occurred in moderate conditions.) Thompson didn’t read out the report’s Summary, a more detailed account, which included a note that “forecasters reported worrisome snowpack test results along the US 550 corridor” the day before. “This provides clear evidence that you can trigger an avalanche breaking on buried weak layers today,” the report said.
The group proceeded to the pass, crossed Highway 550, and started climbing into Senator Beck under a clear sky. They went out of their way to avoid a number of small slopes that were steep enough to slide. At about 12,700 feet, they dug a pit on a southeast-facing slope to assess the snowpack. It looked OK. They kept going uphill until almost 2 P.M., at which point they realized that it was too late to complete their initial objective. From a small knob known as Point 13,106, the group had two choices: ski down their skin track, which they knew was safe, or drop into a wide bowl below them.
The CalTopo map indicated that the left edge of the bowl was never steeper than 30 degrees. They discussed their options, including the potential to remotely trigger an avalanche on slopes to their right if they skied the bowl. One group member, who asked not to be named, expressed hesitation about skiing the bowl. Lovell, however, seemed confident. Two of the students recalled him saying that they would all be fine, so long as they took it slow and spaced themselves properly. They agreed to proceed.
Basic safety protocol dictates skiing avalanche terrain one person at a time—that way only one person is exposed to a potential slide. Lovell explained that he would ski first, to establish a boundary on the right. He then instructed each student to drop in after the prior skier had descended the upper part of the slope, hastening the group’s progress but also placing multiple people on the run at once. One of the students, Andrew Reed, nervously locked eyes with the lone woman in the group.
Before they prepared to drop in, Marshell Thompson (no relation to safety officer Jasper Thompson), a 26-year-old Silverton local who lived in a converted school bus, was having trouble getting into his telemark bindings, so he stepped out from behind Lovell and moved to the back of the line. This shifted Pete Marshall, a 40-year-old father of two from Longmont, Colorado, into the second position.
The students watched Lovell drop in and ski out of sight.
Andrew Reed met Pete Marshall in 2010, when both were getting into backcountry skiing as a way to escape the crowds at resorts. Despite an 11-year age difference, they clicked as partners. They took trips to the OPUS Hut near Silverton and to Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, and they often skied in Rocky Mountain National Park on weekends. Reed, a twentysomething bachelor, admired how Marshall, a successful engineer with a bushy beard and wide smile, balanced his life. “His family was always his first priority,” Reed says. “When we’d get back to his house and hang out after skiing, you would see Pete the father come out. Watching that switch flip and seeing him with his daughters was just a magical thing.”
Avalanche education, which started as a way to train public-safety workers in the mid-20th century, has come a long way since. Now it’s split into tiers for recreationists and professionals, the former starting with a basic Level 1 course and progressing on to Companion Rescue and Level 2. Different schools use similar Level 2 curricula, but there’s variation in how it’s taught. Some instructors lean primarily on snow science and avoid avalanche terrain, while others believe it’s imperative to “go where the dragon lives” in order to communicate the dangers, especially to students with the requisite skills, gear, and desire to ski steeper lines.
Reed and Marshall fit that bill. Both had taken a Level 1, which teaches basic terrain management and rescue techniques, designed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education(AIARE), a curriculum in wide use across the country. When they decided to sign up for a Level 2, they researched different options and landed on SAS, which was founded in 1962 and is the oldest continuously operating avalanche school in America.
“It seemed like it had a good reputation, and both of us loved to go to Silverton,” Reed says. The town of 534 residents, located 15 minutes south of Red Mountain Pass on Highway 550, still has much of the rugged charm it did when the school was founded—and, for that matter, when the town was incorporated in 1876. Most of the streets are dirt. Residents leave their skis on the front porch, surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks. A large part of Silverton’s identity remains rooted in avalanches; four downtown establishments use the word in their name, including the CAIC, which has long maintained an office in town.
The other four students began sidestepping down the mountain to maintain visual contact with their partners. Suddenly, Marshell Thompson saw a large crack form in the snow at his feet and felt himself moving downhill. “Avalanche!”
Reed and Marshall’s course was led by one of the school’s modern mainstays in Kobrock, who has graying blond hair and lives near Wolf Creek Pass on the east side of the range. Known as a conservative decision maker, Kobrock took her first avalanche course more than 40 years ago. She worked as a ski-patrol supervisor at what is now Palisades Tahoe, in California, then as the snow-safety director at Wolf Creek Ski Area, before devoting much of her time to avalanche education.
Lovell, on the other hand, was relatively new to the field. According to a 2019 résumé, he was hired by SAS in 2015 and obtained his AIARE qualification to lead avalanche courses in 2017. The next year, he earned his rock and alpine certifications from the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), placing him on a fast track to becoming an internationally certified mountain guide. He looked the part: five foot nine and solidly built, with brown hair and blue eyes—“a clean-cut, stud ski guide,” as one contemporary described him. In a 2019 email, Lovell estimated that he had guided or instructed about 700 days, including four AIARE Level 2 courses.
When the class split into groups for Saturday’s field session, Reed and Marshall joined Lovell’s party because they wanted experience planning and executing a more complex ski tour. “We didn’t want to skin a half-mile in and sit there and dig a snow pit the entire time,” Reed says.
Shortly after the group lost sight of Lovell, Marshall dropped in. The other four students began sidestepping down the mountain to maintain visual contact with their partners. Suddenly, Marshell Thompson saw a large crack form in the snow at his feet and felt himself moving downhill. “Avalanche!” he shouted. It was 2:41 P.M.
Thompson’s ride stopped almost as soon as it started—the other three students were carried only 15 to 20 feet—but he watched in horror as the crack shot across the rim of the bowl toward a much larger and steeper headwall a few hundred yards to the right, triggering a second hard-slab avalanche. Farther downhill, the first slide caught Lovell and ripped his skis off. He fell forward onto his stomach but was on the surface as the debris came to a stop, just in time to look up and see the second slide churning toward him. It overlapped with the first debris pile but stopped short of Lovell. Pete Marshall was nowhere to be seen.
The crown of the first avalanche was as tall as four and a half feet, and the resulting debris contained huge blocks of snow up to 12 feet wide. The fastest way the students could get to Lovell was by removing their skis and walking down the bed surface in their boots. Lovell and one of the students, an emergency physician named Aaron Reilly, pinpointed Marshall’s location using transceivers. Their screens read 2.7 meters, meaning Marshall was buried roughly nine feet down. Reed confirmed his friend’s position with a probe strike. Then everyone started digging.
The close call left Lovell shaken, and as he later said in a statement given to a colleague that was obtained by Outside, he found it “difficult to fully participate” in rescue efforts. He walked away from the scene to watch for further slide activity and radioed Tyler George at the lodge, reporting two people caught and one buried in an avalanche that happened at around 13,000 feet. The lodge didn’t have cell service, and the landline was broken. So George, who joined the San Juan County Search and Rescue team as a senior in high school and worked as an EMT for the county ambulance service, snowmobiled up to another refuge a few minutes away to call for help. It was locked, so he backtracked to the pass, climbed into his pickup, and drove down to the Addie S. Cabin, a backcountry lodge where he knew his cell phone would work. He reached sheriff Bruce Conrad in Silverton, then alerted Jasper Thompson.
Meanwhile, not long after the avalanche, Kobrock heard Lovell trying to contact her on the radio. In a statement she wrote following the incident, she said that the transmission was “unintelligible” because her group in upper Prospect Bowl couldn’t receive radio signals, which require line-of-sight transmission. “I [did] not attempt to reply, assuming … it would be a frustrating waste of time to attempt to understand one another,” she wrote.
After about 25 minutes of digging, Marshall’s fellow students reached his airbag pack, which had not deployed. He was buried facedown in what Lovell, in his statement, called “one of the worst possible configurations.” When the group finally uncovered Marshall’s helmet, Reilly attempted to rotate his head and administer rescue breaths but couldn’t get him positioned properly.
At some point, Lovell finally contacted Kobrock with news of the accident, and she and her group started skiing back to the lodge. At around 3:30, the shovelers fully excavated Marshall, 50 minutes after the avalanche, but by then it was too late. Reilly administered CPR, to no avail. Marshall was pulseless and breathless, “with no signs of life,” Lovell radioed—a transmission that was overheard by Dave Marshall. Dave asked who the victim was, which is how he learned that his son was dead.
After waiting in vain for a helicopter, with night falling and a storm moving in, Lovell’s group left Pete and skied back to the road by headlamp. George met the students there; some of them dropped to their knees and cried. Eventually, George and Leo Lloyd, a longtime first responder and an SAS instructor from nearby Durango, informed Dave that they would not be able to bring out his son that night.
About 30 people per year die in avalanches in the U.S., but Pete Marshall was likely just the second fatality in a recreational avalanche course. News of his death rippled through the snow-safety world like few accidents had before it. But this would come later: on that first night, there was only grief and disbelief.
After the students and rescuers left the pass, George returned to the St. Paul Lodge alone. He lay in bed asking himself the obvious, unavoidable question: How could this have happened?
Over the past two years, Outside has conducted dozens of interviews with multiple sources, many of whom were closely involved with the accident and its aftermath, including two of the four surviving students; former staff and board members of the Silverton Avalanche School; avalanche educators in the U.S., Canada, and Europe; and Dave Marshall. Others affiliated with the school or involved in the accident declined multiple requests for comment, among them SAS executive director Jim Donovan, Lovell, Kobrock, Jasper Thompson, former SAS assistant director Melanie Russek, sheriff Bruce Conrad, and the two other members of Lovell’s group.
In January 2021, Pete’s wife, Sara Marshall, filed a wrongful-death and product-liability suit in Boulder County District Court on behalf of one of their daughters, who has special needs. The civil action named the Silverton Avalanche School, San Juan County Search and Rescue, Lovell, and the makers of Marshall’s BCA Float 32 airbag pack, which the suit contended failed to operate properly.
Outside has reviewed hundreds of pages of public records and court documents. What emerged is a picture of a tragedy that many argue could have been prevented, and which raises broad questions about an industry struggling to keep pace with booming demand.
On the morning of January 4, when the class met in Silverton to sign liability waivers, there was discussion about conditions and where the groups would venture in the field. In a statement three days after the accident, obtained via a public-records request, Jasper Thompson wrote: “I asked instructors what terrain they intended to use. Sandy [Kobrock] stated ‘we are not going to travel in avalanche terrain’ in the presence of Zack [sic]. I agreed with the decision and added my concern that under these conditions it is best to not travel in, under or on slopes directly attached to avalanche terrain. The instructors acknowledged.”
In internal logs on January 4 and 5, both Kobrock and Lovell noted heavy recent wind loading on terrain above tree line that faced the same direction as the bowl that slid. Lovell stressed the need for “caution ATL [above tree line] on steep slopes with skiable HS [hard slab],” the same ingredients present in the slide. Under the heading “Closed Terrain,” Kobrock wrote: “[Above] 30 degrees.” Lovell, however, acknowledged that if they ended up skiing the bowl, they would have to descend a “small pocket of 30-35 [degree]” terrain that was “adjacent to larger terrain.”
Of course, none of this meant that they knew an avalanche would occur, but it shows that Lovell left the door open to ski avalanche terrain, something Kobrock had explicitly ruled out. On January 4, according to Jasper Thompson’s written statement, Lovell talked to Jim Donovan—who is also the county emergency manager and captain of its search and rescue team—about where he might take his group. But it’s unclear if Donovan weighed in on Lovell’s final plan. (Both men declined to be interviewed or participate in fact-checking for this article.) Later that morning, Thompson wrote, “I expressed my concern to Sandy that Zack seemed inclined to travel in more complex and bigger terrain due to his growing experience as an AMGA rock, alpine, and ski guide. Sandy was thankful for this information and [said she] would follow up [with] a discussion with Zack.”
After that exchange—hours before they would plan their tour at the St. Paul Lodge that night—Thompson noted: “Zack expressed his group would likely go to Telluride Peak on Saturday.”
There’s an old saying that the Sierra Nevada is for skiing and the San Juans are for studying, largely because the latter range is so slide-prone. But the saying can also be tied to the founding of the Silverton Avalanche School, in 1962. Don Fritch, a ski patrolman and Forest Service employee, cofounded the school and taught a mix of highway workers, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and foresters; recreational skiers were rare. By the mid-seventies, the town was home to a group of world-class snow scientists who worked for the Institute of the Arctic and Alpine Research’s San Juan Avalanche Project, an undertaking of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and many of them taught for the school. SAS attracted up to 120 students each January, bringing an economic jolt to the town. Former sheriff Virgil Mason let students sleep on the floor of the jail if they couldn’t find lodging. They listened to lectures in the Grand Imperial Hotel, then dug snow pits on Shrine Hill, a few hundred feet above town.
There’s an old saying that the Sierra Nevada is for skiing and the San Juans are for studying, largely because the latter range is so slide-prone. But the saying can also be tied to the founding of the Silverton Avalanche School, in 1962.
A hodgepodge of locals took turns running the school, including Clay Brown, Silverton’s public-works director, in the 1980s. “One school per year was all we could handle,” Brown says. “If we made a couple thousand dollars, that was doing good. We weren’t competing with anybody.”
Some of the school’s proceeds funded San Juan County Search and Rescue, and that tie to the county provided SAS legal protection in case of disaster. “We did have insurance through the sheriff’s department, but we certainly did not want to play that card. We didn’t want to put anybody in danger,” says Larry Raab, who directed the school in the early nineties and has lived in Silverton since 1974. As more backcountry skiers signed up for courses, Raab stood firm in his risk-management approach: “I had a little friction with instructors because I didn’t allow them to take people into areas that I thought were dangerous.”
Raab was a member of the school’s board of directors in 2009 when it hired Jim Donovan, a software developer, to be the new executive director. For most of the previous decade, Donovan had run a company that specialized in geospatial technologies—on LinkedIn, he called himself “chief code monkey.” He was not an avalanche professional. According to an SAS budget, as director he made $4,200 his first year, and the school brought in about $40,000 from four courses. At the time, some instructors were arguing that SAS should join AIARE, which was gaining popularity and name recognition with prospective students. AIARE charges a one-time $2,500 fee for its curriculum, then $10 to $20 per student taught, depending on the course. Critics refer to it as the “fast food” of avalanche education, but some felt that SAS was starting to lose business because it wasn’t an AIARE provider.
An internal document from that time spelled things out: “It comes down to where we want the school to go in the future? Do we want to look like Hesperus Ski Patrol”—a small, volunteer-only outfit in southwest Colorado—“and offer essentially ‘avy awareness’ workshops? Or go big.”
After a spirited debate among board members and staff, the school joined AIARE in 2010. The move seemed to pay off: SAS documents show that from 2010 to 2011, revenue increased 20 percent, and Donovan’s compensation went from $8,925 to $13,104—a 47 percent jump. He dug a lot of snow pits, read extensively, and started teaching Level 1 courses to recreationists.
“Jim was super motivated, really organized,” says former SAS board member Mike Barney. “He brought on military courses and made class sizes a lot smaller, which improved the quality of the school. He was doing a really good job for a number of years there.”
Before Donovan became captain of San Juan County Search and Rescue, a barrel-chested snowmobiler named Andy Morris held the role. Morris had the opportunity to also oversee SAS as executive director, but he wasn’t interested because one organization funded the other. “I thought there needed to be some checks and balances there,” he says. Instead, he recruited local avalanche professionals to serve on the school’s board. Shortly after Donovan was hired, Morris brought on Barney, a respected ski guide and search and rescue team member. Then he recruited CAIC veteran Mark Gober, who oversaw avalanche forecasting along Highway 550. Barney and Gober subsequently helped enlist Doug Krause, who’d worked as a snow-safety director in both hemispheres.
In 2014, Morris left Silverton to care for his ailing mother, and Donovan, his lieutenant, took over as captain of the search and rescue team. Morris didn’t like the power structure that created. He also worried that the school would place too much emphasis on making money. “I never really saw it that way,” Morris says. “It was more to provide a service for the community and to fund search and rescue.”
In 2012, the school brought in $47,305 from courses. By 2016, that number was up to $135,395. In 2017, it jumped to $218,246 and Donovan, who frequently scheduled himself as an instructor, made $42,742. After Donovan took his emergency-manager job in 2015, Gober, Krause, and Barney became concerned that it was eating into his SAS responsibilities. “It felt like the school was being neglected a little bit,” Barney says. They say that they attempted to discuss it with him, but all three referred to him as “evasive” in his response.
“I don’t think it was a malicious thing,” Krause says. “It was more of: I’m in way over my head, and his way of managing that was by saying, OK, OK, OK—yet essentially doing nothing.”
SAS wasn’t the only organization that had scaled up—so had the nonprofit that qualified its instructors. When Liz Riggs Meder started working for AIARE seven years ago, roughly 4,500 people per season were taking a course. Last winter that number hit 17,882—including a 53 percent jump year over year in rec courses. Revenue skyrocketed from $228,909 in 2012 to $808,061 in 2019—a 253 percent increase. AIARE has more than 500 freelance instructors operating in 14 states, as well as 30 trainers who qualify instructors, yet the organization struggles to keep pace. It used to be that avalanche educators, including guides, would teach five to seven courses per winter. Now many are teaching 15, and veteran instructors are getting burned out.
“The pressure to keep up with demand is insane,” says Jake Hutchinson, a longtime Utah-based lead instructor with the American Avalanche Institute. “We could probably fill twice as many courses as we teach.” Prospective AIARE instructors come to the training with varying levels of knowledge, which creates a tricky dynamic. For “probably 90 percent of people who go through an instructor-training course, we’ll say, ‘You should gain more experience,’ ” says Riggs Meder, now AIARE’s director of rec programs. “But ultimately, staffing is up to the providers.”
At SAS, in response to the increased number of courses, Gober and Barney say they tried to establish clear qualifications for visiting instructors and to hold annual training sessions on how SAS classes should be taught. “We were getting instructors that Doug and Mike and I had never heard of, and we have a couple years in the avalanche world,” Gober says. “It was like, Wait a minute, who are these people coming in? How do we know that they’re teaching courses at the level we want to be teaching?”
Pete Marshall in the Tetons (Photo: Courtesy Andrew Reed)
At 7:28 on the morning after the Senator Beck accident, Donovan emailed 35 people who either worked for or were associated with the school, informing them of the accident and telling them not to talk to the media. It took two days for SAS to issue a press release. An early draft said the school would “learn from this incident to help others,” but that phrase was scrapped from the final release.
Krause, who’d been teaching a course in Crested Butte on January 5, remembers his phone conversation with Donovan shortly after the accident. Krause was concerned that the avalanche had been caused by “some kind of systemic risk-management failure”—one that added to the inherent danger of backcountry skiing. “That was my first question for Jim, actually,” Krause says. “Did we do it right? Did we do our due diligence? Was it appropriate? And his response was: Yes, yes, yes.”
Reed stayed in Silverton until a team recovered Marshall’s body on January 8, and he remembers talking with Lovell about what had happened. “At first he was, naturally, I wouldn’t call it defensive, but I think he was quick to say, Hey, our decisions were good,” Reed recalls.
Dave Marshall made a similar assessment of the school. “There was no hint of any mistakes having been made,” he says. “I imagine everyone reacts differently in a situation like this, so I hesitate to infer motives, but in the two days we spent in Silverton waiting for the storm to pass so Pete could be brought out, Zach barely said a word to me, no expression of sorrow or regrets.”
Over the next week, old-guard SAS instructors called and emailed each other to see if anyone knew what had happened. Many familiar with the terrain around Red Mountain Pass were shocked to learn where the accident occurred. “From my kitchen window, I can see that bowl,” says Chris George, who converted an old mine into the St. Paul Lodge in the mid-seventies. “You’d get up in the morning and look over there, and by lunchtime there’d be fracture lines in the bowl. I saw hundreds of slab avalanches there.”
The group’s use of CalTopo software to plan their route later came under scrutiny. “From the slope shading, we could tell there was this kind of, supposedly, not-over-30-degree way down the slope,” Reed says. “We should’ve used our eyes more.” Reed also wishes he had spoken up when he and the female student exchanged their nervous glance before dropping in. “We were both like, Ohhhkayyy. It almost felt like we rushed to make this plan—that we all agreed to, don’t get me wrong. But it felt like we rushed, when we should’ve just stopped for a moment and voiced our opinions, which were: Number one, why are we not skiing this one at a time? And number two, why are we skiing this?”
When Liz Riggs Meder started working for Aiare seven years ago, roughly 4,500 people per season were taking a course. Last winter that number hit 17,882.
On January 6, Tyler George, who had been thrust into the center of the accident and left to manage the fallout, made a list of conditions to be met before his family would host another SAS course at its lodge. He drove into Silverton that afternoon and says he found Donovan at the school’s headquarters.
“I said, first of all, if we’re going to be an asset in the field for you as a safety officer, then we get a final say on where you’re going. You need to tell your instructors that if we say it’s a no-go situation, that’s it—it’s not a discussion,” George recalls. “Otherwise we won’t sit and hold a radio for you. Also, we need a lot more notice than just the morning of. And if these changes aren’t made, we won’t host out of the St. Paul Lodge anymore, because we don’t want to be associated with this.”
In much of Europe, an avalanche death automatically triggers an investigation by law enforcement. That doesn’t happen in the U.S. Instead, agencies like the CAIC generate incident reports, though none of these organizations have punitive authority.
The final CAIC analysis came out 11 days after the accident, the day after Pete Marshall’s funeral took place in Longmont. The report called the tragedy “especially troublesome” in part because of the educational setting. Investigators measured the slope where the first avalanche ran at between 32 and 34 degrees. “This is only a few degrees steeper than the shading tools show, but in this case it may have been a very important difference,” the report says.
According to Dave Marshall, who referred to Pete as “my best friend as well as my son,” SAS staff assured him shortly after the accident that it would be “a huge learning experience” and would “affect the course structure.” Pete’s wife, Sara, invited SAS staff to his memorial service. But Dave didn’t see anyone from the school in attendance. He struggles with the fact that no one read the CAIC forecast Summary to Pete’s group. “It just stays in your mind, that if the whole group had seen that, then one or two of them may have decided to go the safer way when they skied down,” Marshall says.
Two months after the avalanche, in March, four students returned to Silverton to finish the course, including three from Lovell’s group. Donovan taught it. They discussed the accident at length, comparing their thoughts from January with how they felt now. “Jim talked a little about it from the school’s perspective, but was a little quiet about that,” Reed says. “I’d say he was guarded.”
Various figures in the avalanche industry have responded to the circumstances of the slide. Noted snow scientist Jeff Deems, who is on the board of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, also in Silverton, published a piece in The Avalanche Reviewin September 2020 cautioning readers about relying on digital mapping tools. “Rules of thumb are rarely appropriate in the avalanche world,” Deems concluded, “but here’s one that might keep us out of trouble: It’s probably steeper than the slope map says.” At least one Silverton outfitter made operational tweaks in the wake of the accident, formalizing a veto policy among guides and instructors when it comes to terrain choices. But SAS, which broke from AIARE in 2020, would not disclose what operational changes, if any, it made.
In October 2021, the Marshalls settled their claim against San Juan County and Lovell for $150,000. (The claim against the airbag manufacturers was ongoing at press time; Donovan cited the litigation when he declined comment.)
No matter the final legal outcome, questions of accountability remain. In his witness statement the night of the accident, Lovell said that the decision to ski the bowl was made as a group. “We all arrived at a consensus,” he said. Reed adds: “I don’t necessarily blame Zach for anything that happened, but I think there was a halo effect, for sure. We were threading the needle way too much.”
“I think we’re all to blame,” says Marshell Thompson.
Other guides and instructors, however, pushed back on that notion and said it unfairly traumatizes students. “We give a lot of lip service to ‘ride together, decide together’—if anyone vetoes, no one does it,” says a guide in Silverton who is certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) and asked not to be named. “But in a situation like this, those things sort of go away. You are paying a professional to manage your safety, and the expectation should be that your safety is managed.”
“Ultimately,” says 87-year-old Rod Newcomb, one of the godfathers of avalanche education, “the instructor has the last word.”
Before their case was settled, San Juan County’s attorneys were considering what’s called a governmental immunity defense. In court records, they referred to Lovell as a “public officer,” a distinction that would have been easier to justify 50 years ago, when the school primarily catered to safety workers. “Teaching people how to control county roads is a big difference from teaching people how to recreate,” says San Juan County commissioner Austin Lashley, who took a Level 2 course from SAS in 2008. Still, the school, which has always been a point of local pride, maintained ample support in town. “I would only say that Silverton Avalanche School has saved countless lives in its 59 year history,” sheriff Bruce Conrad wrote in an email declining an interview request. Nevertheless, as the scale evolved, so had the management requirements.
Gober, Krause, and Barney say they tried on numerous occasions to get Donovan to focus on keeping up with the school’s growth instead of teaching courses, and they eventually discussed removing him from his position as director. But since the board had been formed in an advisory capacity, it was unclear whether they had that power. “At the end of the day,” Krause says, “I felt like all we could really do was push.”
Their power struggle continued into the summer of 2019. Grappling with how to move forward from the accident, Barney says, he reiterated their questions to Donovan: “Are you committed? Do you want to keep doing this? Is this what’s best for you and your life?” Kimmet Holland, the fourth board member and a confidant of Donovan’s, defended Donovan and his work for the school, the other members say. Barney remembers Holland saying, “The Silverton Avalanche School is Jim’s baby,” which struck Barney as odd, given the school’s history.
Soon afterward, in early August 2019, Holland sent Barney and Krause an email dissolving the board. He told them he had hired a lawyer and met with the sheriff and claimed that they were not compliant with the bylaws and thus had never been a legitimate board to begin with. Krause, in a reply, questioned the school’s financial practices and whether anything illegal was going on. They say Holland never responded.
“Without a word, the only three avalanche professionals on the board were removed,” says Gober, who was copied on the correspondence, “after we had been pushing Jim on a lot of issues that could be painted as affecting this accident.”
Gober, like Barney, still wonders what he could have done to prevent Pete Marshall’s death. “My shortcomings are many in this story,” Gober says. “There’s a lot that may or may not have led to this accident. I’ve definitely thought about it, plenty of times.”
Perhaps the only question murkier than what would become of the school was what would become of Lovell. Many a guide has lost a client, but one in particular could relate to what Lovell was going through.
On the afternoon of March 6, 2005, Amos Whiting, 28, was the lead instructor of a Level 2 course with Aspen Expeditions. It was the third and final day, and Whiting, along with four students and an intern, left the boundary of the Aspen Highlands ski area to examine a recent avalanche crown. The group dropped into a run called Five Fingers Bowl and was partway down when one of the students, a 32-year-old New Mexico man named John Jensen, fell and triggered an avalanche that carried him 3,000 vertical feet and buried him four feet deep. Whiting’s group dug him out in about 30 minutes, but he did not survive.
In a story published by the Aspen Daily News that raised questions about the terrain choice, respected state forecaster Dale Atkins said of Five Fingers: “You don’t go there to be trained. You go there once you are trained.”
Aspen Expeditions owner Dick Jackson happened to be president of the AMGA at the time, and he defended Whiting. Jackson also helped Whiting teach for the AMGA the following year, a part-time position Whiting remains in today, while also serving as Aspen Expeditions’ owner and head guide.
Lovell is not among the 27 instructors listed on SAS’s website, though Kobrock is. He wasn’t named publicly as Marshall’s instructor until Sara Marshall filed suit two years later. His culpability is still a point of debate: Was he at fault? Was he part of a larger failure at SAS? Or was this accident simply a result of the inherently dangerous setting in which avalanche courses are taught? Former Exum Mountain Guides co-owner Peter Lev, 82, who was living in the San Juans at the time and skied Red Mountain Pass often, believes Lovell made an egregious mistake, but the burden wasn’t his alone. “I feel bad for him,” Lev says.
A Silverton-based guide who has taught courses with Lovell since the accident, and who asked not to be named, says: “It shouldn’t be a single guide’s responsibility to make perfect decisions all the time. There should be a system in place to use the knowledge of everyone available.”
“We give a lot of lip service to ‘ride together, decide together,’” says a guide who works in Silverton. “But in a situation like this, those things sort of go away. You are paying a professional to manage your safety, and the expectation should be that your safety is managed.”
Whiting reached out to Lovell after the accident at the behest of a mutual friend. He didn’t hear back for months. When they finally spoke on the phone in the spring of 2019, “Zach was tormented and rattled, as anybody would be when you lose a client,” Whiting recalls. “There was some soul-searching going on.”
Whiting thought Lovell deserved a second chance, as Jackson had given him. He and Lovell taught a Level 1 together last winter near Aspen. “I won’t speak to whether I thought his decisions were right or wrong” in Senator Beck, says Whiting, now 45. “My experience with Zach is that he’s a good instructor.”
Lovell passed the AMGA ski guide exam last spring and earned his IFMGA pin, the highest certification in the world. Multiple guides shielded Lovell when contacted for this story; one declined an interview because Lovell asked him to, and another wouldn’t confirm Lovell’s employment with his company, “out of respect for Zach.”
This is commonplace after an accident. Jake Hutchinson, who has taught avalanche safety for more than a quarter of a century, says the industry likes to think that it does a thorough job of analyzing tragedies, but the reality is different. “We treat too many accidents with kid gloves because we don’t want to shame people,” he says.
Whiting does not believe Lovell, now 29, should be defined by the incident.
“He could’ve quit, and maybe that would’ve shown more guilt or remorse,” Whiting says. “But at a time like this, with a record number of people traveling in the backcountry and taking avalanche courses, we need experienced educators like Zach.”
The accident was still a sensitive subject in Silverton in the spring of 2021, when Tyler George agreed to meet for an interview one afternoon at the ambulance carriage house. It had been an especially tragic winter locally; George had already helped recover five bodies from avalanches. Long, narrow rays of sun gleamed through an upstairs conference room as George detailed his love for the school and the town and working on the ambulance, which he called “the best job in Silverton.” That love is only half of why he remains so conflicted about the accident. An eminently qualified mountain man—he runs the county’s snowmobile and swiftwater rescue teams, serves on the avalanche quick-response team, and worked as a river guide in the Grand Canyon—George still thinks about his exchange with Lovell on the morning of the accident. “I’m not in charge of those folks,” he said. “I was simply acting as a radio relay, at the end of the day. So I didn’t feel like I could say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ But afterward, I really wish I had. That’s a huge regret for me.”
No one in town, least of all George, wants the school to die—and with more than 60 classes advertised for the winter of 2021–22, including five recreational Level 2’s, it hardly seems to be in danger. Still, many people who are familiar with what happened believe some changes are needed. As former SAS director Larry Raab said, “When you have a splinter, you have to get it out.”
In a phone call last October, George said that SAS’s deputy director had requested permission to hold another Level 2 at the St. Paul Lodge in early January, the school’s first time back since the accident. While he and his siblings weighed their decision, SAS started advertising the class on its website for $800 per student. The class never happened, but the scenario symbolized the tricky position George is in. As the new director of Silverton Medical Rescue, a combination of the ambulance service and the search and rescue team, he answers to a board that includes Donovan, who’d recently asked him not to talk to the media about the accident. George was trying to gain support for a new ambulance building and livable wages for his staff, he said.
It was easy to feel his internal tension whenever he started in on a point he felt strongly about, then stopped before saying too much. But he had already done what few were willing to do. He could not stay silent about what happened that day—and what he knows to be right and wrong. Every accident is a learning opportunity, even one that starts at your front door.