Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 1999-01-22
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Near the Aspen Highlands Ski Area
State: CO
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 2 Out of bounds skiers, 1 caught buried and killed

Avalanche Accident Near Aspen Highlands

Jan 22, 1999

An avalanche late Friday afternoon resulted in the death of one local skier. The accident occurred outside the Aspen Highlands Ski Area in the White River National Forest. The skier had left the ski area boundary as is allowed by local policy.

The weather :

A very dry late November, December and early January had resulted in an exceptionally weak snowpack in most Northerly or otherwise shaded aspects. The settled snowpack at the main weather plot at Aspen Highlands never exceeded 80cm during this dry spell. Large cupped depth hoar was the rule top to bottom is these areas. On the 17th, snow began to fall and eventually made an 8 day period with significant snowfall each day. On the 22nd, the 6 day total was 65cm of new snow. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had posted an Avalanche Warning for the area as well as had the avalanche danger rated at High to Extreme.


In the preceding 2 days, the Aspen Highlands patrol had triggered many avalanches with explosives around the area ranging up to size 3's.

The Accident :

The victim, a well known local and frequent visitor to the backcountry around Highlands, had skied several trips out the boundary to the Castle Creek Road on that day prior to the run in question. He had spoken with a patroller during the day and mentioned the multiple signs of instability he observed during his first two trips. These included widespread cracking and collapsing in shaded aspects below timberline. For his third trip leaving the boundary at around 3pm, he had picked up a partner, who was also a well known local skier, familiar with the area in question. Neither person had any avalanche rescue gear with them that day but both did own beacons and shovels.

After leaving the boundary, they immediately began to notice signs of instability including cracking and collapsing of the snow. During the rescue the next morning, we found that their tracks traversed through pockets with cracks running in excess of 100 feet horizontally and vertically. The cracks extended into the weak depth hoar from earlier in the year. These pockets were all in the low 20 degree range so did not quite have the pitch to actually avalanche.

They decided that perhaps they would be better off returning to the area that the victim had skied earlier in the day. In attempting to make this change, they followed a spur gully which brought them to the top of a small sub-gully having sides of 45 degrees. An open slope above the gully scared them and they decided that the bottom of the gully would be the safest place to ski. The victim, skiing first, disappeared around a small bend when the second skier apparently triggered the south facing side of the gully and partially caught himself in the avalanche but was able to escape burial. Having been confused about the position of the victim, the second skier spent some time searching the area for tracks before beginning to probe with his ski pole. Approximately 1:15 after the avalanche, he struck the victims boot and was able to quickly clear his face in the very soft debris. Rescue breaths were unsuccessful and so he proceeded to completely dig the victim out and perform several minutes of CPR without success. As darkness was closing in, the second skier left the scene to report the accident. He had ? mile of remaining avalanche terrain to negotiate before reaching South Hayden Road which he managed to do without further incident. During the recovery the next morning, we were able to trigger 2 additional size 2 avalanches directly on his escape route.

The accident was finally reported at Aspen Valley Hospital (the closest facility to the site) at about 7:15pm, about 4 hours after leaving the boundary of the ski area.

The Recovery

The local Sheriff's office which is responsible for all rescues in the backcountry in Colorado, requested assistance from the Highlands Patrol to effect a body recovery the next morning. A hazard reduction team from the patrol secured the route in and out of the site and the Highlands Patrol escorted the local coroner and deputy to the scene to conduct an investigation and retrieval which was complete by 10am.

The Details

The avalanche occurred on a southerly aspect[120] (but shaded so as to approximate the snow pack of a northern aspect) at an elevation of approximately 9200ft. The slide was 50' wide, 18" deep and ran about 140 linear feet (70 vertical). The slab was formed of recently deposited new snow and partially decomposed grains (1-2mm). The bed surface was formed of cupped grains (4mm) which was the snow surface prior to 1/15. The crown had a very distinctive semi-circular shape. The dimensions were about 8' wide (constricted in a tight gully), 140' long with the depth ranging from 2'-5'. The victim was 100' down along the length of the debris and buried about 3' deep. The debris was exceptionally soft due to the lack of running distance of this avalanche which could almost be classified as a bank slide. The slide was classified as SS AS 2 O B. (Under the Canadian guidelines which we use, this slide was big enough to bury a person therefore, it has to be a size 2)