Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: Dale Atkins; CAIC
Place: Rollins Pass near Boulder, Yankee Doodle Lake
Summary: 2 backcountry skiers caught, 1 buried and killed
Yankee Doodle Lake, CO
2 backcountry skiers caught, 1 buried and
Provisional Report -- Report subject to change as
more information is learned.
Date & Time: November 28, at approximately 1300 hrs.
Yankee Doodle Lake, East side of Rollins Pass, Front
Range, approximately 3.5 miles west of the Eldora ski area.
Elevation: 11,300 feet, at timberline
Aspect: Southeast (120 degrees)
Slope Angle: 34 to 36+ degrees
The avalanche was classified as HSAS3O/G (hard slab,
artificial-skier trigger, medium size, running on old
snow/ground). The crown (fracture line) was 2 to 5 feet,
and 400 feet wide. About half way down the slope the
avalanche was funneled to a width of 223 feet. The
avalanche released from a southeast-facing slope and fell
600 vertical feet and stopped by crashing through the
10-inch thick ice of Yankee Doodle Lake. The displaced
water resulted in a surge 10-12 feet tall along the south
The snowpack at the crown was uniform and hard (pencil)
except at the ground. The bottom 2 inches consisted of
soft (4 finger hardness), loose, beginning faceted (sugar
snow). In places along and immediately below the crown
was old summer snow or neve. (We were not able to safely
approach the neve. There is a possibility this "old" snow is
not neve but is more recent snow (October) that developed
a hard melt-freeze crust.)
Contributory weather factors
Weather data is still being collected. An estimated 12 inches
of new snow fell in the area between November 23 and 28.
"Heavy blowing snow" was reported at Eldora Mountain
Resort on the night of November 26/27. The morning of the
28th dawned sunny.
Early Wednesday afternoon two local Boulder-county men
were skiing the open slope above Yankee Doodle Lake
when they triggered a sizable hard-slab avalanche. The
avalanche struck the ice-covered lake and shattered the ice,
dumping both men into the water. The pair were skilled and
avalanche-savvy backcountry skiers who were
well-equipped for a day in the mountains. One man died
(drowned?). His friend escaped, but unable to find his
missing partner, he hiked back to the Eldora ski area to get
This was the men's third day in a row on this slope where
two days earlier they had enjoyed terrific powder skiing.
Before starting their descent the pair dug a snow pit.
Apparently satisfied with what they had found, they agreed
to ski short distances one-at-a-time, taking turns watching
each other while the other would wait at a "safe" spot. The
first man (survivor) skied a short distance to flatter-bench
area and traversed toward some rocks to avoid a much
steeper cliff area. He glanced back over his shoulder and
spotted his friend who had just started down. He then
realized the entire slope was moving. The avalanche left
both men in Yankee Doodle Lake.
The survivor ended up nearly in the middle of the lake
approximately 190 feet from shore. Packed in shattered ice
and water he struggled to the shore. Yells for his friend
brought no response and he could not detect a signal from
his friend's avalanche beacon. His waterlogged cell phone
did not work, so he set out for help. He hiked down the
Jenny Creek trail the 5 miles to Eldora Mountain Resort.
The Eldora Ski Patrol responded first followed by
members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. Arriving
as darkness fell the hasty search was organized. Searchers
tried to detect a beacon signal but could not, so probe
poles were used to search likely burial areas. More rescuers
arrived including avalanche rescue dogs. The rescuers
could not search the shattered ice and water until later that
evening when trained dive-rescuers arrived with specialized
rubber suits. After 2300 hours that evening a dive-rescue
team member searching the refreezing surface detected a
signal. The missing man was found 91 feet off shore in the
frozen snow, ice and water.
These men were smart and savvy backcountry skiers who
were doing things by the book yet still got into trouble. At
the time of the accident (and in the days before the
accident) we were rating the backcountry avalanche danger
in all mountain areas at CONSIDERABLE. Triggered
avalanche releases were probable, and natural avalanches
were possible on NW to NE to SE facing-slopes near and
above tree line. The avalanche the men triggered occurred
on an ESE to SE facing-slope at tree line.
Before rushing to judgment, remember both men were
backcountry and avalanche smart. They had the right
equipment and knowledge to be out in the terrain, snow,
and weather conditions. Boulder County Sheriff George
Epp said it well in the Daily Camera newspaper
(11/30/2001, page 5A) when he was quoted "If you try to
get a lesson out of this...the mountains can be dangerous
no matter how prepared you are."
This is the first Colorado avalanche death in Colorado in
the 2001-2002 winter, and second in the United States.
Incidents where avalanche victims are swept into water and
drowned uncommon but not unheard of. In 1978 at Twin
Lakes, California, a county snowplow and a pickup with
two occupants were swept into the unfrozen Lower Twin
Lake. The snowplow operator swam to shore. Twenty
minutes later a motorist stopped by the earlier avalanche
climbed on to the debris where he was caught by a second
avalanche and swept into the lake. All three motorists
drowned. In 1981, near Elko, Nevada, a snowmobiler was
caught and swept into an ice-covered lake and drowned.
(Thanks to Bill May, RMRG for enhancing some of the
From KUSA TV Denver, 9news.com
Backcountry Snowboarder Killed in Avalanche
Story by Marc Sternfield November 29, 2001 - 10:11am
The body of 29 year-old Joe Despres was found in a lake around midnight.
Despres was snowboarding with a friend, 47-year old Peter Vaughn, near Rollins Pass about 25 miles west of Boulder yesterday when the avalanche happened.
The Boulder County Sheriff's Department says Vaughn was able to free himself from the snow and hike three miles to the Eldora ski area. He told the ski patrol that Despres was trapped in the avalanche.
After an extensive search on the ground and in the air, a dive team recovered Despres's body about 50 feet from the shore of Yankee Doodle Lake. He was under three feet of water, the emergency services coordinator for the sheriff's office said in a news release.
Vaughn was in stable condition this morning at the Boulder Community Hospital after receiving treatment for hypothermia and frostbite. Both men were from the Nederland area.