A group of seven backcountry skiers who triggered a fatal avalanche in the San Juans were warned of significant avalanche activity and checked the forecast before the accident, according to a report released by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Help from more than 30 agencies was needed to rescue three bodies from the avalanche, which trapped the skiers under snow funneled into a steep gully. Teams were not able to recover all their bodies until three days after the accident, due to the severity of the avalanche and ongoing avalanche danger.
The avalanche, which happened on Feb. 1 near Ophir between Crystal Lake and the middle fork of Mineral Creek, killed three Eagle County residents – Andy Jessen, 40, Adam Palmer, 49, and Seth Bussong, 52.
The avalanche happened in an area known as “the Nose,” between Silverton and Ophir where some of the group of had previously skied. They had avalanche transceivers and were experienced. Shortly after their descent, an avalanche caught four of the skiers in two waves of snow, stretching about 1,000 feet wide and ran 1,500 feet down the mountain. One skier was only partially buried and the group was able to dig him out first.
The rest of the group immediately sent out an SOS message, and dug for their three companions for hours, trying to locate them using avalanche beacon signals. First responders arrived late that night, but suspended operations until the next day and the skiers had to go back to the hut for the night.
The skier who had been partially buried injured his knee, and lost his skis and poles in the avalanche. The group built snowshoes out of tree branches for him to leave the area.
The next day, rescuers were able to extricate two bodies that were buried 9 and 11 feet deep before an avalanche hampered efforts, covering the roadway providing access to the area. They returned the next day and were able to reach the third body, which was buried 20 feet under the snow.
Recovering the avalanche victims’ bodies was no small task - organized search and rescue teams enlisted the help of a helicopter to drop explosives on the area to reduce the avalanche danger for responders to access the area. They also brought in power tools and heavy equipment – a snowcat from La Plata County – as well as borrowed snowmobiles, chainsaws and rescue sleds.
The San Juan County rescue team noted it also broke eight shovels in the recovery efforts.
Classified as a “persistent slab” avalanche, the event happened in a part of the San Juans which were rated for “considerable” avalanche danger at the time – and the statewide avalanche forecast agency had advised it was likely such an avalanche could be triggered at or above treelike.
Leading up to the avalanche, the area had received snow from several small storms, with periods of cold, dry weather in between. Then a large storm at the end of January deposited the majority of the snow in the area – an estimated 20 percent of the season’s snow in about a week. This deposited significant snowpack on top of older snow, which had built shallow, weak snowpack for a base and led to unstable conditions.
The report from the statewide avalanche information center notes the group was advised of avalanches in the area before they went skiing that day.
“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,’ ” the report said. The report also noted one of the skiers had an old avalanche transceiver which appeared to put out two signals instead of one, which led them to think there were two bodies in one area.
The report also noted poor communication may have contributed to the group not sticking together and keeping an eye out for danger.
"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 report said.
A previous avalanche in the San Juans near Silverton killed two backcountry skiers in December. This fatal avalanche happened southeast of Ophir, in an area called the "Battleship," and killed two men from Durango. Both skiers were experienced and knew the area, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report.