Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: CIAC; Atkins
Place: Grand Mesa
Summary: 1 skier caught, buried, and killed
Report from the CAIC
April 1, 2005
1 backcountry skier caught, buried and killed
On Friday morning a 27-year-old Boulder man was buried and killed in an avalanche on Grand Mesa. He was backcountry skiing with a Grand Junction friend when they triggered the avalanche shortly before 11 a.m.
This is the fourth Colorado fatality of the season and the 25th in the US. This was also the 2nd avalanche fatality to have occurred on the Grand Mesa. The other occurred on January 30, 1999.
Weather and Avalanches
This winter abundant snows have blanketed the Grand Mesa. By the end of March our 120-inch snow stake was buried -- 35 inches had fallen in the last week -- and the Natural Resources Conservation Service's SNOTEL site at Mesa Lakes reported 150% of normal.
On Thursday March 24, the Colorado Department of Transportation used explosives to trigger avalanches from the steep rocky areas above Colorado Highway 65. All shots produced wide soft slab avalanches that hit the road. Snows continued to fall and another control mission was conducted on Thursday, March 31. Explosives released several loose snow avalanches, including one about 100 yards away from the accident.
After a week of winter-like weather high pressure had moved over the region and Friday morning dawned clear. Blue Bird skies and fresh powder awaited skiers, riders, and snowmobilers. Two young men, one from Boulder (age 27) and the other from Grand Junction (age 26) parked their pickup truck on the shoulder of SH 65. Behind them -- about 150 feet -- was a CDOT avalanche-hazard area sign. Just up the road and visible from the parking spot was debris from an avalanche triggered the day before. While the men readied their gear, two CDOT employees stopped and advised the pair they were parked in an avalanche area and that their ski plans were "not a good idea" because of the recent avalanche activity.
The pair replied they would dig a snowpit and evaluate the danger.
The pair then set out. The Boulder man broke trail switchbacking up the 42-degree slope. He used alpine touring skis and skins, in his pack was shovel but he carried no avalanche rescue beacon. The Grand Junction man followed well behind on snowshoes, without a beacon or shovel or probe. He wore only snowshoes and carried a camera; he did not have skis or a snowboard.
The Boulder man had skinned up through a small rock band and was near a small rock outcrop when he triggered the avalanche. He was swept over the rocks and down into the trees.
The Grand Junction man was at a switchback when the heard the snow "pop." The avalanche fractured and released a few feet in front of and below him. He called 911.
Mesa County Search and Rescue Groups responded from the Grand Junction area. After the 911 call we are unsure of the Grand Junction man's actions, other than he was able to flag down the CDOT workers.
Three CDOT plow drivers immediately responded with their beacons, shovels, and probes. Unfortunately the victim did not have a beacon. The workers found both skis in the snow and was feverously spot probing the likely area. Once additional rescuers arrived at the site spot probing near the skis found the victim within 10 minutes, but it was too late. He had been buried nearly 2 hours.
He had been buried face down under 2 feet of debris in a spread-eagle position. He had been swept between some trees but did not appear to have physical trauma. It is presumed he died of asphyxiation.
The avalanche was classified as a SS-AS-2-O. It was a medium-sized avalanche relative to the avalanche path. The avalanche fractured 2.5 feet deep by about 300 feet across. It fell 250 vertical feet. The slide occurred on a NNW aspect at 10,560 feet with a slope angle of 42 degrees.
The soft slab -- 1-finger hardness -- was perched above a thin, soft, loose weak layer (5 mm thick) of mixed forms (faceted, sugar-like grains starting to show signs of rounding). A compression test done along the crown revealed a "hard" shear; however, the block fractured clean and fast (Q1). A week before this same weak layer was responsible for the large avalanches triggered by CDOT avalanche control teams. The fatal accident occurred on an uncontrolled slope about 100 yards east of an avalanche that had been triggered the day before.
The quality of a shear is very important and has been used by avalanche workers for years, but it is just recently finding its way into use by recreationalists. Shear quality scores can be a very important indicator of false stability -- when stability test scores are high. A quality 1 shear (Q1) along with a hard or strong shear test can indicate dangerous slab conditions. [If you would like to know more about shear quality, here is a pdf file you can view from Karl Birkland of the USFS.]
The CAIC Danger Rating
On the morning of the 1st the backcountry avalanche danger in the C mtns: "Near and above treeline the danger is CONSIDERABLE on slopes facing N-E-SW where recent drifting has occurred. On other aspects the danger is MODERATE on steep, recently drifted areas. Below treeline the danger is MODERATE, but with pockets of CONSIDERABLE developing on steep, sunny aspects in the afternoon."
The signs -- literally -- of obvious avalanche danger (fresh avalanches, a road sign, piles of debris from a week earlier, and personal advice) were there. The pair's failure to recognize the seriousness and validity of these signs (or clues) and to adjust their actions to lessen their risk, lead to this accident. Avalanche accidents usually happen because of ignorance, arrogance, overconfidence, or distractions; the pair knowingly or unknowingly assumed a combination of these factors and put themselves into harm?s way.
Ignorance can be overcome by getting educated and using the Center's forecasts. At least one of the men had some avalanche awareness as they mentioned doing a snowpit. The pair may have seemed arrogant in their actions, but no one likes to be advised by someone else not to do something, especially when they have done it many times before. (We do not know if they had been in this area before.) Arrogance is best overcome when one realizes they can make mistakes. The pair was not planning on making a mistake, as they carried no rescue gear. Overconfidence is overcome by expecting the unexpected. On Friday morning the pair did not expect to encounter an avalanche. And, distractions are overcome by focusing on the avalanche conditions.
This accident was mostly likely the result of ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps with more avalanche training the pair would have had the knowledge to put the clues into the proper context. Unfortunately their ignorance was compounded by their arrogance. Not carrying avalanche rescue gear on an obvious avalanche slope during times of obvious danger is a death sentence for a buried friend. A beacon, probe, and shovel in the hands of a skilled companion might have changed the outcome.
Everyone venturing into avalanche terrain should carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear; however, we must remember that surviving an avalanche burial is more a matter of luck than skill and equipment. Therefore we should travel as if we left our rescue gear at home.