Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2005-03-06
Submitted By: CAIC; Dale Atkins
Place: Five Fingers Bowl, Elk Mountains
State: CO
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 skier caught, buried, and killed

Aspen, Five Fingers Bowl, Elk Mountains

March 6, 2005

1 backcountry skier caught, buried, and killed

At about 1445 hours Sunday afternoon a 32 year-old man was buried and killed in a sizable avalanche in the backcountry near the Aspen Highlands Ski Area. At the of the avalanche the man was participating in a Level II avalanche-awareness class in Five Fingers Bowl. (Five Fingers Bowl has become a popular out-of-area ski tour adjacent to the Aspen Highlands ski area. Access is either from the top of Highlands Peak via a USFS backcountry access gate or to climb from the bottom starting at Conundrum Creek.) He was the only person caught.

Details are few and what follows is preliminary and subject to change. We know the group had dug several snow pits across the top of the bowl as they traversed southward. Stability tests indicated moderate shears or what we might call "so-so conditions;" the tests and pits apparently did not reveal obvious instability or stability. The group -- skiing one at a time -- were working their way down a prominent rib and gully below the "thumb" (point 12,495). A skier would ski toward the gully or perhaps even in the gully and then traverse back to the rib to wait for the next skier. The victim -- skiing third -- skied into or toward the gully and fell and rolled. This triggered the avalanche that broke some distance above him and swept him down nearly the entire track.

Rescue

Words likely cannot describe the horror the group experienced watching one their own swallowed up in a churning torrent of snow. They descended quickly but cautiously; at one point they had to remove their skis to down climb a rock band. It may have taken as long as 20-30 minutes to reach the debris and a transceiver signal was quickly detected. It was only a matter of minutes before they had pinpointed the signal and started digging. They found their friend under 3-4 feet of snow, and started CPR for at least an hour without success.

Minutes after the avalanche 2 members of Mountain Rescue Aspen were driving from Ashcroft back to Aspen when they noticed the fresh looking avalanche. From the road and using binoculars they were able to see ski tracks including one track ending at the fracture line. They could not see the skiers and drove a short distance down the road and looked again. This time they could see the skiers descending the debris. It was a short time later their rescue pagers sounded with the report of the accident. They quickly drove to the "trailhead" and started up to help. The body was evacuated by the group and by Mountain Rescue Aspen. The Aspen Times web site wrote the Pitkin County Coroner's Office said the victim died from asphyxiation.

The Avalanche

Early reports classify the avalanche as a SS-AS-3-O. This medium to large-sized avalanche -- large, only because it ran so far -- released about 3 feet deep by about 150 feet across. The slab fractured 200 feet above the helpless skier. The fracture line was just below 12,200 feet and the avalanche fell about 3,000 vertical feet, stopping below 9,200 feet, or just short of the last steep pitch above Conundrum Creek. The avalanche released from the steep northeast-facing side of the gully in cold, dry snow, but by the time the avalanche stopped it had plowed into wet snow low in the runout. The victim was found about 200 yards uphill of the toe or end of the debris.

The Weather

The weather on Sunday the 6th was beautiful and spring-like; however, it was not a cause for the accident. Though snow near the valley floor was wet, the snow high in Five Finger Bowl was cold, and dry. Temperatures at the time of the accident were in the upper 20s and a light breeze blew from the west.

Temperatures during February and for the first six days of March were very mild. The average daily temperatures stayed in the upper teens to upper 20s for nearly the entire month. Only on three days did the average daily temperature barely dipped below 10F, and those days were weeks earlier.

As mild as temperatures were, February snowfall at both Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain was probably about normal with 40 and 46 inches reported. At higher elevations like the upper reaches of Highlands Bowl and Five Fingers Bowl, even more snow fell. In the first few days of March, 2.4 and 4.6 inches of new snow were reported at Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain.

Winds were almost as mild as the temperatures for the month of February and early March; however, on a few days around the Presidents Weekend some brisk southwest winds did cause some blowing and drifting snow at mountaintop levels.

The Snowpack

Few exact details are known. Most likely a persistent layer of faceted, sugar-like grains that likely formed during the dry and mild last 2 weeks of January were the culprit. This particular slope may have avalanched earlier this season, leaving behind a generally shallow snow cover where a strong temperature gradient weakened the snowcover. If the slope did not avalanche, near-surface facets formed during the dry end of January. In both situations the weak snow was buried by February snows.

As we learn more information about the snow cover, we will pass it along.

The CAIC Danger Rating

The backcountry avalanche danger posted (telephone hotlines) Sunday morning for the C mtns was "overall MODERATE near and above treeline. Below treeline LOW. Crested Butte zone: MODERATE overall."

Comments

All avalanche accidents ending with serious injuries or death are tragic, especially for the friends and family of the victim. This accident strikes close to home for many of us who work in avalanche terrain and especially for those of us who teach avalanche education.

Atkins, updated on March 7 at 2300 hours.

Initial Report from CAIC

posted 03/06/05

Aspen, Five Fingers Bowl, Elk Mountains

2 backcountry skiers caught and 1 killed

Shortly after 1500 hours we were alerted to an avalanche accident in the backcountry near the Aspen Highlands Ski Area. Details are very few but at this time we know the man killed was a member of a group of 6 backcountry skiers in Five Fingers Bowl. One other skier was caught and appears to be okay.

The avalanche released above treeline and has been estimated at about 100 to 200 yards across and running "full length" which means up to or greater than 3000 vertical feet.

Five Fingers Bowl has become a popular out-of-area-ski tour adjacent to the Aspen Highlands ski area. Access is either from the top of Highlands Peak via a USFS backcountry access gate or to climb from the bottom starting at Conundrum Creek.

The CAIC Danger Rating

The backcountry avalanche danger posted (telephone hotlines) Sunday morning for the C mtns was "overall MODERATE near and above treeline. Below treeline LOW. Crested Butte zone: MODERATE overall."

We will post more details as they become available.

Atkins, March 6, 2000 hours

************MEDIA REPORTS************

Slide victim suffocated

Coroner: Visiting skier died of asphyxiation

By Steve Benson and Tim Mutrie

March 8, 2005

The man killed in Sunday's avalanche in the Five Fingers Bowl area outside Aspen Highlands has been identified as John William Jensen.

The Pitkin County Coroner's Office said Jensen died of asphyxiation.

Jensen, 32, most recently lived in New Mexico and California. Jensen was in Aspen participating in an Aspen Expeditions Level II avalanche education course. One of a party of six in the Highlands backcountry Sunday, Jensen was the only skier caught in the slide.

Initial reports from the scene on Sunday indicated Jensen had suffered grave injuries during the slide, but Pitkin County Coroner Steven Ayers said there was no significant trauma.

"We were all kind of surprised," Ayers said Monday. "There must have been something about his clothing that made it look like [he had broken his legs], but there was no fracture or anything. And the head trauma was mostly vomit and some facial swelling and bruising and abrasions" - injuries Ayers described as superficial.

Jensen was a student, Ayers said. "He had done some work at Los Alamos in New Mexico and some kind of work in California," Ayers said.

The Aspen Times is still seeking information about Jensen.

The avalanche, which was reported by a skier on top of Highland Peak at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, carried Jensen about 3,500 feet down a gully. Jensen came to rest in the debris flow on a knoll above the floor of the Conundrum Creek Valley. It's estimated he was buried for about 20 minutes before his party dug him out. Ayers said he did not know how deep Jensen was buried. "But I can't imagine it was that deep for him to be extricated that quickly," said Ayers.

Aspen Expeditions owner and guide Dick Jackson said Monday evening that he had spent the day investigating the avalanche site.

"We're wanting to do a little bit more research to connect the dots here a little bit more before we make any statements," Jackson said.

An Aspen Expeditions spokeswoman told the Times on Monday: "We understand that efforts are being made to contact family members, and our heartfelt sympathy goes out to them." Knox Williams, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the backcountry conditions in Aspen on Sunday - moderate danger with pockets of considerable in areas favoring colder aspects - hadn't changed much in the week preceding the fatal slide.

"What we had was a midpack weak layer, and it was not getting any stronger," Williams said. "It was something to really worry about in the snowpack."

Sunday's slide originated on a north-northeast aspect at approximately 12,000 feet.

"It's obvious it was in one of the areas identified as consisting considerable danger," Williams added.

The party was located skier's right of the gully on a rib when it slid. They were just below the top of Highlands ridge. A glimpse of the fracture-zone from the looking-glass at the top of Aspen Mountain Monday indicated the group had dug a snow-pit to gauge the stability of the slope.

The crown of the slide was about 3 feet deep and 150 to 225 feet wide.

Williams doesn't think the sun, which had been beating down on parts of Five Fingers for most of the day, influenced the slide at all.

"It was a northeast aspect, it should not have been affected too much by the sun," he said.

On Sunday evening, Highlands patrol director Mac Smith said the party was one of at least four to exit the ski area boundary during the day. The Highlands ridge is frequented by backcountry skiers.

"The vast majority don't trigger things, but that's just the nature of the beast," Williams said. "When one does [release] on a slope that size, the consequences can be terrible."

Williams added: "There are not too many days in a typical Colorado winter where you're totally safe from avalanches on slopes steeper than 35 degrees. Retrospectively, they were in a bad place, but that's something that comes with being in avalanche terrain."

Steve Benson's e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com; Tim Mutrie's e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com