State report concludes the April 20 avalanche accident that killed five people was avoidable
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — It’s April in Colorado and heavy snow is falling on the mountains of the Continental Divide, where a high-spirited group of mountain enthusiasts gather to plan a short backcountry tour, envisioning dreamy, floating turns and faceshots on the slopes of Mt. Sniktau, a mountain along the Continental Divide between Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin where planners once hoped to create an Olympic ski arena.
Well equipped and versed in backcountry travel, the six men head up Loveland Pass, a Mecca for Colorado backcountry skiers since the early days of the sport. At Scotty’s Corner, the last hairpin before the crest, the men headed east across the face of the 13,234-foot peak, aiming for northwest facing slopes on the far side of a broad gully that splits the face of the peak, according to an April 24 report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Recognizing the potential danger of avalanches, the group identifies what they thought was a safe zone near a cluster of trees on a knoll on the far side of the drainage. They discuss the avalanche danger again, agreeing to spread out as they crossed the slope. But they aren’t cautious enough, given the magnitude of the slide they ultimately trigger at about 10:15 a.m.
In places, the crown of the 800-foot-wide avalanche is 12 feet deep. The slide runs about 600 vertical feet, snapping off tw0-inch thick tree branches and piling up tons of snow as heavy as wet concrete.
Two members of the party had already reached the trees, with the other four close behind, when they heard and felt the snowpack collapse around them with a “whumpf,” according to the CAIC report.
As the crack shot uphill, they scrambled to try and cross the slope to get out of the path, but the large slide engulfed the entire group, entombing five people — Christopher Peters, 32, of Lakewood; Ryan Novack, 33, of Boulder; Ian Lanphere, 36, of Crested Butte, and Rick Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park completely beneath stifling masses of snow. All five men died.
The sixth member of the group — Jerome Boulay — was partially buried, “In an upright semi-seated position,” according to the report, and tried to slowly claw his way out of the snow’s icy grip while calling for help.
Even though the group was less than a mile from busy Highway 6, it wasn’t until two hours later that passing motorists noticed the slide — two CAIC forecasters headed back from Berthoud Pass saw the debris from I-70 and headed up Loveland Pass to investigate the scene, not knowing if any backcountry travelers were involved.
Stopping near the avalanche at 12:45 p.m., the forecasters did a cursory beacon search from the edge of the slide path, but the buried victims were out of range, on the other side of the drainage. After scanning the debris with binoculars to look for ski tracks or other evidence of a possible burial, they headed back down to Loveland ski area, asking if anyone participating in the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering if they knew about the slide.
“At this point several people at the gathering mobilized, knowing that a group of 6 had headed towards Sheep Creek that morning,” the CAIC investigators said their report, concluding that the first responders arrived at the scene about 1:45 p.m. Within minutes, a beacon search yielded a signal, and responders began recovery of the first victim, buried six- to eight-feet deep.
Additional rescuers located multiple beacon signals on the far side of the avalanche, including one victim buried 10 to 12 feet deep. Several of the men were wearing avalanche floatation bags or Avalung breathing apparatus, but none of the survival gear had been deployed, according to the CAIC report.
“Even experienced backcountry travelers can, and sometimes do, die in avalanches … Even though this is a very tragic accident, it was avoidable,” the CAIC concluded in a press release announcing the release of the report.
Expressing condolences, the CAIC said backcountry travelers should be aware of lingering danger in the Colorado backcountry, where avalanches have killed climbers, hikers and skiers during every month of the year.
People participating in snow related recreation should remember these important points:
- Know the current avalanche conditions before your trip – In Colorado go to www.colorado.gov/avalanche; for national information go to http://www.avalanche.org. Avalanche conditions in Colorado are more dangerous right now than the typical April. The weather over the next month could exacerbate our current avalanche problems.
- Carry avalanche rescue gear – This should include an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe pole. It can also include Recco tabs, airbags, and Avalung. Know how to use this equipment. Remember that having equipment does not guarantee your safety, but not getting caught in an avalanche does.
- Get avalanche education – Know how to use the information provided by avalanche centers. There are online tutorials and lots of great classes provide by people working with the American Avalanche Association (www.avalanche.org) and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (www.avtraining.org).
Filed under: avalanches, climate and weather, Snow and weather, Summit County snow and weather Tagged: | backcountry skiing, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado snow, Loveland Pass, Loveland Pass avalanche, search and rescue