Several misjudgments led to an avalanche that killed a backcountry skier participating in a Silverton Avalanche School course earlier this month, according to a report.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center released its final report Wednesday about the avalanche that occurred Jan. 5 near Red Mountain Pass, in an area known as Upper Senator Beck Basin at about 13,000 feet in elevation.
The CAIC report identified three critical factors that led to the fatal avalanche:
The group was traveling together down the mountain, which resulted in all six people being caught in the avalanche.
The group misjudged the avalanche danger for the terrain they were traversing.
The group failed to take into account the risk of triggering avalanches on adjacent slopes.
“It took all those events together to produce a death,” said Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC.
The group of skiers were taking part in a Level 2 course, a three-day program for advanced backcountry skiers, with the Silverton Avalanche School based at the St. Paul Lodge outside Silverton.
The Silverton Avalanche School declined to comment Wednesday but said the school would issue a news release later today.
According to CAIC’s report, the six-person group had meticulously planned a route to minimize risk and avoid areas with high avalanche danger.
The area had been classified as “considerable” on an avalanche risk scale during the days leading up to the slide, with numerous avalanches reported. On the day the group went out, the avalanche risk had dropped a notch to “moderate.”
The skiers were able to avoid avalanche areas and reach the top of South Telluride Peak, the CAIC report said.
On the way down, however, things took a turn for the worse.
The group had two options for its descent: go back the way it came, which Greene said would have been the safer option, or take a route that entered more “complicated” terrain to read for avalanche danger. The group chose the more complicated route.
The Silverton Avalanche School guide was the first to go down, followed by student Peter Marshall, 40, of Longmont. The rest of the group followed behind.
It’s not clear who triggered the avalanche, but it carried all the skiers downhill. Only the guide, who was not identified, and Marshall were buried.
The first avalanche then triggered a larger, second avalanche on an adjacent slope, burying Marshall under 8 feet of snow. It’s estimated the crown face of the second avalanche was 36 inches.
The second avalanche did not reach the guide, who was able to unbury himself.
The guide and the rest of the group, who were not buried, turned on their beacons to try to locate Marshall. It took about 50 minutes to find and dig Marshall out of the snow. The group then tried, unsuccessfully, to revive him.
Greene said that rather than assigning blame, it is important to use the fatality as a learning experience.
For one, it’s basic backcountry travel protocol to travel one-at-a-time down a slope. That way, if an avalanche is triggered, it is more likely the slide will catch only one person.
Greene also said the group, while planning its route at the hut, got only part of the avalanche forecast for that day.
Had the group read the entire report, it would have known that even if group members were in terrain with low-avalanche potential, there was still a high potential for triggering avalanches on adjacent slopes, which is what happened.
“They didn’t read the whole report, and they missed that,” he said.
None of the members saw whether the first avalanche buried Marshall, before the wall of the second avalanche came down, the report said. But it is clear the second avalanche dumped more snow on top of him.
It was also noted in the report that Marshall was wearing an airbag backpack, but the bag had not been deployed.
“He got hit by a big wall of snow, so we don’t know if a bag would have helped, but it’s possible,” Greene said.
Marshall’s death is the first avalanche fatality in Colorado this year and the first death in the Silverton Avalanche School’s six-decade history.
“This tragic accident impacts all of us, and our deepest condolences go out to the family,” the school wrote on its Facebook page a few days after the avalanche.