A trio of backcountry skiers involved in an avalanche March 31 near Rico were prepared for an emergency, but also made questionable decisions before the slide that injured a man, according to a Colorado Avalanche Information Center final report.
The slab avalanche was triggered by a skier on the north side of Telescope Mountain in sparse trees at 11,500 feet. It ran 650 feet, was 250 feet wide and 31 to 36 inches deep at the crown.
The skier was carried by the slide and suffered a broken femur after hitting a tree. He was not buried.
A rescue effort was launched by the skier’s two companions, Dolores County Search and Rescue, San Miguel County Search and Rescue, and Flight for Life.
According to the CAIC report, the three backcountry skiers met on Colorado Highway 145 at McJunkin Creek, northeast of Rico. Two of the riders had toured in the area the day before.
The three initially followed the previous day’s track up McJunkin Creek before turning south and climbing to a flat bench at 10,850 feet. Their initial plan was to descend from this point. Because they were all unfamiliar with the McJunkin drainage, they decided to keep “exploring” and gain the ridge of Telescope Mountain.
As they climbed toward a ridge, the slope steepened into sparse forest, and the group agreed to spread out, staying around 100 feet apart. About 11 a.m., the lead skier heard a large collapse in the snowpack and looked up to see the avalanche breaking 15 to 20 feet above him.
He turned his skis down the fall line to move with the slab, and maintained his balance for about 100 feet.
A large crack in the snow surface opened in front of him, and while trying to jump over it, he fell.
“He fought to stay on top of the moving snow and steer away from obstacles,” according to the report. “When the avalanche stopped, Skier 1’s upper leg was injured from hitting a tree, but he was not buried.”
The backcountry skiers described the avalanche as “large moving blocks of snow.” Avalanche debris piled 10 to 12 feet deep.
The other two skiers were not caught in the avalanche, and made contact on their two-way radios. They descended to their injured friend and moved him downhill of a large stand of trees.
They bundled the injured skier in jackets and dug a platform and wind break. One of his companions monitored and supported the injured skier’s leg for the next three to four hours. The other skied out and went to the Rico Fire Station to call 911 about 11:45 a.m.
About the same time, the skier who stayed with the injured man made contact over his two-way radio with a separate group of backcountry tourers on top of Palmyra Peak, about 15 miles northeast near the town of Telluride.
The second group notified the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, and 10 to 15 members of the San Miguel County Search and Rescue team were dispatched to assist Dolores County Search and Rescue. A Flight for Life helicopter shuttled rescuers to the ridgeline above the injured skier.
They transported him to a meadow lower on the slope. The Flight for Life helicopter landed in the meadow, and then flew him to Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango.
The three skiers were experienced backcountry skiers with formal avalanche training, were aware of recent avalanche activity and carried avalanche rescue equipment. But misjudgments that day contributed to the avalanche, according to the report.
Having the two-way radios was especially helpful.
“The three skiers could communicate immediately after the avalanche,” allowing the injured skiers’ companions “to slowly and safely move downslope knowing he was not buried,” the report said.
Using the radio, the party was able to contact another group on Palmyra Peak, who alerted authorities about the avalanche and injury. This was the third accident in late March in which two-way radios provided a valuable communication tool, CAIC officials said.
The idea of “exploring” new areas drew the Telescope Mountain group beyond their original plan, according to the report. It was only the first or second time they had all skied the terrain.
“The group was wary of the more open slope they were traveling on, but chose to proceed spaced apart,” the report states. One of the skiers had climbed through the trees to avoid the steep slope.
The two skiers who were not caught in the slide were discussing the slope steepness minutes before the avalanche, but the other skier was too far ahead to participate in the conversation and was caught in the slide.
“Changing plans in the field without a thorough group discussion is a common contributing factor in many avalanche accidents,” the CAIC report said.
The report added that the accident occurred against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Twenty search and rescue team members from multiple agencies were involved in this rescue. Other members were held on standby but not sent to the site to decrease the number of people potentially exposed to COVID-19.”