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Avalanche zone near Aspen known for unstable snow

ASPEN, Colorado – The area where an avalanche took the life of longtime local John Kelley on Tuesday is notorious for unstable snow and regular slides, according to backcountry skiers and officials.

The popular zone near the Lindley Hut above Ashcroft is known by some as “Facet Farm” because of the uncohesive snow it produces. “Facet” is a term used to describe angular snow with poor bonding, created from fast temperature changes within the snowpack.

The west and northwest facing slope is a half circle that doesn’t get a lot of sun, and as a result, the snowpack isn’t as stable. When a lot of snow accumulates quickly on it like it did last weekend, the potential for an avalanche is extreme, according to officials.



Over the years, the area has claimed the lives of at least two individuals, injured others and buried one man who was found alive by his fellow skiers.

“That one particular slope has been a site of a lot of close calls and accidents,” said Brian McCall, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.



Kelley, 60, suffocated Tuesday after a massive slide buried him in about four feet deep snow. Mountain Rescue Aspen recovered his body Wednesday morning.

In March 2002, a man in his 60s also died in nearly the same spot after he was caught in an avalanche that was about the same size as Tuesday’s slide. Two others were injured in the 2002 avalanche, according to McCall.

“It was the exact same slope, and the pictures I just looked at from then are surprisingly similar to the other day,” he said of the slide.

In February 1987, a skier was caught on the same slope and buried in 41⁄2 feet of snow after an avalanche was triggered by his group. He was not wearing a beacon but he was found alive by a lucky probe strike on his ski, McCall said.

The slope, which is lightly gladed with trees, can be deceiving because it appears to be relatively flat but has steeper terrain underneath the snow.

“The lower portion of the slope is skied quite a bit,” McCall said. “The problem is the track above is steeper and more unstable.”

McCall, who was on the scene Wednesday, said his best guess is that the avalanche was triggered from above as Kelley was skinning up the slope.

Kelley, an experienced backcountry skier, wasn’t wearing a beacon. Once the others in his group realized that a slide had occurred, they furiously began probing for him while another person skied down to the Pine Creek Cookhouse to alert authorities.

Mountain Rescue responded immediately, operating from various locations, including Pitkin County Sheriff Deputy Joe Bauer, who was at the organization’s Main Street headquarters, helping coordinate rescuers in the field.

Even the most experienced backcountry skiers can get caught in deadly situations. However, checking avalanche forecasts before heading out and wearing a beacon can help avoid tragedy, McCall said.

He added that this year is unlike the past two seasons when above-average snowfall created a more solid snowpack. This year, the snow is sugary and doesn’t bind as well.

“This season is definitely harder,” McCall said, adding even if someone has skied an area for years, conditions are always different. “You have to approach each slope with fresh eyes.”

McCall said avalanche danger in the backcountry is still considerable, and was rated high on Monday.

“Our concern is that we are starting to see a lot of natural avalanche activity and there is potential for some huge human triggered avalanches right now,” he said.

Hugh Zucker, president of Mountain Rescue, said being safe is not about experience but about being disciplined.

“You can’t rely on your internal state to determine if it’s safe or not, you have to rely on data,” he said.

csack@aspentimes.com


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