A Durango man died in an avalanche Sunday between Silverton and Red Mountain Pass.
The skier was identified as Abel Palmer, 27, according to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.
According to his Facebook page, Palmer attended Telluride High School, studied at Fort Lewis College and worked at Durango Sports Club.
“He was just always one of those happy-go-lucky guys that was enjoying life and had a smile on his face,” said Will Thomas, owner of Durango Sports Club. “He knew everyone here by name, and everyone knew him.”
The human-triggered avalanche occurred in an area known as Sam’s Trees in the Chattanooga area, on the south side of Red Mountain Pass near mile marker 77 on U.S. Highway 550. The slide occurred on a northeast-facing gully slope about 11,200 feet in elevation, according to an initial report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Ethan Greene, director of CAIC, said a team went to the site Monday to investigate the circumstances of the avalanche. It appears Palmer was backcountry skiing with one other person.
Palmer’s skiing partner, as well as other people in the area at the time of the avalanche, will be interviewed in coming days to help piece together what caused the slide. A final report should be ready by Friday, Greene said.
Greene said the area is a popular backcountry ski spot. When the avalanche was triggered, some people went to help with the rescue while others alerted 911.
Across Southwest Colorado, avalanche danger remains relatively high, Greene said. Because of dry conditions this fall and winter, there’s a thin, weak layer of snowpack on the mountain. Now that larger storms are dropping more snow on top of the weak layer, it’s more likely it will give out and cause a slide.
“Think of it as a building on a weak foundation,” Greene said.
The avalanche Sunday was small relative to slides that usually occur in the San Jan Mountains, but because of the weak foundation of snow, it was easy to trigger. Plus, it appears Palmer was caught in a gully, Greene said.
“The avalanche wasn’t very big, but in the wrong place it can be very dangerous,” he said.
It is the first avalanche death of the 2018 season in Colorado, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The northern San Juan Mountains received up to 20 inches of snow in a 24-hour period last weekend. The avalanche rating is “considerable,” which means natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered avalanches are likely, according to the San Miguel County Search and Rescue.
“Our deepest condolences go out to the friends and family of the victim,” San Miguel Search and Rescue wrote on its Facebook page.
Thomas said Palmer had worked at the Durango Sports Club for about 5 years.
“Abel was one of the biggest outdoorsmen I’ve ever known,” he said. “He really forged a lot of connections with a lot of people.”