The group of ice climbers involved in a fatal avalanche that killed a Seattle woman last week tried to dig her out from under a rubble pile of ice with their bare hands before rescuers arrived because they didn't have rescue equipment, according to a report released today by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. But it probably wouldn't have made a difference in the end, they said.
The women had little notice of the impending danger, and first heard a a loud “crack” before ice and snow rained down on them and buried one of their group in the bottom of the Uncompahgre Gorge on Saturday, below The Dungeon ice climb, south of Ouray.
According to the accident report, it was the ice – not snow – that killed Van Le Little, 44, who was with a group of women attending an ice climbing clinic at the time. She had stopped to take photos when the incident happened, and no one was climbing the route when the ice broke off. Officials ruled the avalanche a natural accident, one in which Little was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The party arrived around 8:10 a.m., according to the report, and descended down to the bottom of Red Mountain Creek, below U.S. Highway 550. The avalanche is estimated to have happened more than two hours later – around 10:45.
Two climbers were untethered when the accident happened - one of them being Little. A third climber, who was tethered, was also struck by ice but wasn’t injured.
The guide and another climber initially tried to dig through the debris with their hands to uncover Little, but couldn’t reach her, and called for help from rescuers.
Ouray Mountain Rescue was dispatched just after 11 a.m. and responded to the scene about 35 minutes later. Less than an hour after arriving, one of the rescuers found Little using a probe, who was buried headfirst in the creek, under about five feet of ice and snow.
The avalanche center officials noted it’s rare to have a natural avalanche cause fatalities – only about seven percent of those have been naturally triggered in the past three decades.
According to the center’s report, this is the fifth fatal avalanche accident in Colorado during the past 10 years that involved a climber and climbers account for about seven percent of avalanche fatalities during that time.
“None of the climbers in the group were carrying avalanche rescue equipment,” the report said. “In this case, the group’s initial rescue effort was limited to digging with their hands and ice tools in probable locations.”
The report recommends all climbers consider carrying avalanche rescue equipment, though “in this case, given the nature of the debris and the narrow gorge below, it is unlikely the outcome would have been different.”