Snow riding accidents claim lives of two men in Aspen area
Two men died in separate accidents Wednesday on the slopes of Aspen Highlands and on Burnt Mountain, a popular out-of-bounds area adjacent to the Snowmass ski area.
Gabriel Lee Hilliard, 30, of Aspen, was snowboarding on Canopy Cruiser at Highlands when he struck a tree, continued down the slope, struck another tree and was impaled by a branch on the left side of his chest, according to the initial investigation by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. The branch broke off and the man was discovered on the ground, Deputy Alex Burchetta said.
Hilliard previously worked for Aspen Skiing Co. in one or more of its restaurants, but he was not a current employee, Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said. He was a season-pass holder, Hanle said.
Burchetta said Hilliard was apparently riding alone at the time of the accident. Sometime after the accident, a group of four snow riders was heading down Canopy Cruiser when a woman became separated from the others, rounded a tree and found the victim, Burchetta said.
After finding Hilliard unconscious and unresponsive, the skier went to the Deep Temerity chairlift and called the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol at 1:04 p.m., according to a statement from Skico. The ski patrol responded immediately and performed advanced life-support measures until 1:37 p.m., when Hilliard was pronounced dead at the scene, Skico said.
Burchetta said it was unknown when the accident occurred and how long Hilliard was lying in the snow.
Canopy Cruiser is a double-black-diamond run to skier’s right of the Deep Temerity chairlift. The terrain has numerous glades among thick woods. Hanle said Hilliard was found below the Hyde Park Traverse. Hilliard was wearing a helmet.
The second accident occurred when a 43-year-old “local skier” got caught in an avalanche while skiing out of bounds on Burnt Mountain, according to Skico’s statement.
“The initial reports were that he went over a cliff and was buried by snow,” Burchetta said. The information came from another snow rider who reported the incident from the scene, he said. The victim dropped in from a ridge and knocked loose a section of snow.
“When the skier came to rest at the bottom of the 25 yard long section, the snow caught up to him and buried him,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
The man was skiing with two other people, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Other skiers saw the victim get buried and worked for about 10 minutes to dig him out of the snow. Others at the scene called 911, the sheriff’s office said.
The Sheriff’s Office relayed the information to the Snowmass Ski Patrol at 1:39 p.m. The Sheriff’s Office asked the patrol to act as first responders. Patrollers reached the man at 2:18 p.m. and took over CPR until 2:53 p.m., when he was pronounced dead, Skico’s statement said.
Burchetta said he was unable to answer if the victim was wearing an avalanche beacon. The victim’s name wasn’t released by authorities as of press time although a source with knowledge of the person said he was a handyman who lived in the upper valley. Hanle said the victim was a season-pass holder.
Burnt Mountain is a popular “sidecountry” area for powder skiers. It has a lot of gently rolling slopes but pockets where slides occur.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center rated the danger for the Aspen zone as considerable to moderate Wednesday depending on the aspect of the slope.
The website had an ominous warning: “It has been a dry winter so far, but you will want to keep that powder fever in check this week as the potential for both natural and triggered avalanches, some of which may be large and destructive, exists on many steep slopes.”
The Snowmass accident was the first fatal avalanche in Colorado this year, the information center said.
“Our condolences to family and friends,” the center said.
The two accidents are the first two fatalities in or adjacent to the four ski areas of Aspen and Snowmass this season. A snowstorm Monday and Tuesday improved conditions and was bringing more valley residents out to the slopes.
“All of us at Aspen Skiing Co. are deeply saddened by these losses and our sympathies go out to friends and families of the victims,” Skico said in its statement.
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Independence Pass opened just before 2 p.m. Friday after closing earlier this week because of a series of snowstorms, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman said Friday.