Man escapes avalanche south of Eagle with broken leg
January 13, 2017
EAGLE COUNTY — A backcountry skier swept away in an avalanche escaped with his life and a broken leg.
Colter Hinchliffe, Calein Babford and a third friend were backcountry skiing on Red Table Mountain on Jan. 7, a remote spot in Eagle County. Red Table Mountain rises to 12,043 feet in the Sawatch Range south of Eagle in the White River National Forest.
Hinchliffe, 30, was born in Aspen and still lives there. He's an adventurer featured in several ski films.
"We're all very experienced backcountry travelers," Hinchliffe said.
The three skied an easterly slope on a calm, cold day. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the slope showed no signs of instability.
The three saw remnants from a slide the day before, but that was in a different area and they stayed well away from it, Hinchliffe said.
"We hadn't seen anything that day that was alarming. But overall we knew we had to be cautious," Hinchliffe said. "We were sticking to smaller slopes because the danger was high."
It's standard protocol to be prepared in case something does happen, Hinchliffe said.
"A lot of people say it's not if they'll happen, but when," Hinchliffe said.
The slide hit at about 2 p.m. It was their second lap, a few hundred yards away from their first run.
Before that last run they talked about what they would do if there was a slide.
The victim was about halfway down when the snow broke loose, sending him tumbling about 500 feet on a slide 50 feet wide. Babford and Hinchliffe were still at the top.
A slide that size might not look that big, unless you're in it.
"That's a scary moment. All of a sudden your worst fears are coming true in front of your eyes, and all you can do is watch," Hinchliffe said.
But watch is what you're supposed to do.
"It's important to keep you eyes on your partner," Hinchliffe said.
The victim, who was not named in any of the reports, managed to stay on top of the slide, but it was moving so quickly he was unable to escape. On the way down he hit a tree and suffered a broken leg.
"At that moment it was a relief to see him on top of the snow," Hinchliffe said.
Babford and Hinchliffe knew their friend was alive because they could hear him screaming in pain.
Their first call was wisely to Jordan Wight, a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen. Wight contacted Vail Mountain Rescue, who sent a rescue crew to get the three.
Babford and Hinchliffe were careful about how they approached their injured friend, being sure they weren't making a bad situation worse by pushing snow on top of him.
The three stuck together, and were there about three hours before the Flight for Life helicopter found them.
Because communication was spotty, the three were actually about 15 miles from where they rescue crews thought they were, said members of Vail Mountain Rescue who finally found them.
It was almost dark when a Flight for Life helicopter crew spotted them, using night-vision goggles, rescuers said. That night vision gear made it possible for the rescuers to spot the three from several miles away, rescuers said.
Hinchliffe and Babford moved their injured friend about 100 yards to a spot where the chopper could pick him up safely.
After he was on his way, Hinchliffe and Babford skinned back to their snowmobiles, and snowmobiled back to their cars, happy to be alive and healthy.
As storm after storm rolls through the Rockies, almost two dozen avalanches have slid in the last couple weeks.
One slide closed Interstate 70 on Vail Pass this week. More than 20 avalanches were reported along U.S. 550 in southwestern Colorado, and eight on Loveland Pass.
Nine people have been caught in those avalanches, and two were fully buried. None has died.