Fatality reported in out-of-bounds avalanche at Aspen Mountain | PostIndependent.com

Fatality reported in out-of-bounds avalanche at Aspen Mountain

Lauren Glendenning
lglendenning@aspentimes.com
A summertime aerial view of Aspen Mountain from the west shows the out-of-bounds area below the top of the Ruthie’s chairlift where searchers found the body of an avalanche victim Monday.
Google Maps/Courtesy image |

AVALANCHE DANGER LISTED AS "CONSIDERABLE"

Up to 30 inches of snowfall in the Aspen area has elevated the avalanche risk to “considerable,” according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Forecaster Blase Reardon wrote on the center’s website Monday that conditions in the backcountry and on slopes near ski areas would be dangerous.

“Shooting cracks, whumpfing collapses and fresh avalanches are clear signs that it’s time to return home,” Reardon wrote. Skiers remotely triggered small avalanches on Richmond Ridge south of Aspen Mountain and on Mount Justice in the Marble area on Sunday, according to the center. No one was caught.

Backcountry adventurers were advised by the avalanche center to take a “cautious, watchful mindset.”

“Beware of slopes where new, recent and wind-drifted snow forms slabs that are cracking or collapsing as you weight them. Don’t let your guard down if you head back up for a second lap on a slope; with snowfall rates over an inch an hour, conditions can quickly become more dangerous between runs on the same slope,” the website said. “Look above and around you to see if the terrain you’re on is connected to steeper slopes that are being rapidly loaded.”

Detailed information can be found at http://avalanche.state.co.us.

An avalanche killed a skier Monday in an out-of-bounds area on the west side of Aspen Mountain, below Ruthie’s Lift.

The uninjured skier in the party of two skiers reported the avalanche to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office just before 3 p.m. The skier was able to provide valuable information to Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, members from Mountain Rescue Aspen and Sheriff’s Office deputies, according to a news release issued by the Sheriff’s Office just after 7:30 p.m.

“Members of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol successfully located the body of the missing skier shortly after 4 p.m. at the bottom of a snow-covered chute at approximately 9,400 feet,” the news release said. “A total of seven patrollers and rescue equipment were brought to the scene. The skier was pronounced dead at approximately 5 p.m.”

Search and rescue teams plan to recover the body early Tuesday morning once additional avalanche hazards surrounding the scene are mitigated.

“This is probably as active of a cycle as we’ve seen since a year ago,” Blase Reardon, Aspen zone forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said Monday that Skico was “saddened to hear this tragic news and our thoughts are with the family and friends of the victim.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecast for the Aspen zone Monday morning was listed as considerable, the third highest danger rating on a five-tier scale.

“Safe travel on and below slopes steeper than about 30 degrees will require very careful route selection and travel practices,” the forecast summary said.

The terrain the skiers were in is in the vicinity of Keno Gulch, said Blase Reardon, the Aspen zone forecaster for the avalanche center. The skiers were seen on the mountain within an hour of the accident, so it appears they entered the terrain via the ski area and not from the bottom of Castle Creek Valley, Reardon said.

“It’s steep, west-facing terrain below treeline, so there’s both conifers and aspen glades and a lot of narrow runs through the trees,” he said. “It’s the kind of terrain we’d identify as a terrain trap. A terrain trap is anything that magnifies the consequences of being in a slide.”

That could include gullies that make for deeper burials or terrain that slides into trees, increasing the chances for blunt-force trauma, he said.

Reardon said the avalanche center would investigate the avalanche Tuesday and would release a report within a week.

There were “numerous” reports of skier-triggered and natural avalanches Sunday and Monday, he said, including in the Richmond Ridge area, Maroon Bowl, Raspberry Ridge in Yule Creek, and McFarlane’s Gulch.

“This is probably as active of a cycle as we’ve seen since a year ago,” Reardon said.

The Sheriff’s Office is not yet releasing the identity of the skier until next of kin is notified. The Coroner’s Office is expected to release the victim’s name at a later date.

Reardon said the purpose of the avalanche center’s report is to educate backcountry travelers so they can make informed decisions. He said the problem with the recent dry spell is that skiers have been powder-starved, and backcountry skiers and riders have also been able to ski terrain that wouldn’t normally be safe to ski this time of year. Now that two snow storms have dropped more than a foot of new snow across the area in the last week, with more snow in the forecast later this week, terrain people skied safely a week ago is now likely to be extremely dangerous.

“One of the things that can affect our decisions is familiarity with terrain,” he said.

While natural avalanche activity is expected to decline in coming days, the potential for skier-triggered slides remains likely for the next few days, and the dangers will increase again after the next storm at the end of this week.

“What’s likely to happen, the things that don’t slide will be near the threshold,” Reardon said, “and we’ll get more snow on it and we’ll get wider and deeper slides — (which are) more dangerous.”

lglendenning@aspentimes.com


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