Wet, loose snow slide injures snowboarder in Tenmile Range, 2 helicopters, teams from 3 rescue groups respond
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY —Rescue workers faced a lengthy ordeal Saturday working to evacuate a snowboarder injured in a wet-snow avalanche on Peak 2 (Tenmile Peak) in the Tenmile Range above Frisco.
The rescue volunteers dealt with rotten snow as they tried to reach the area, as well as slopes loaded with hangfire at the scene, with dangerous areas of snow above the accident site poised to release. Click here to read the Summit County Rescue Group’s blog for the official version of the rescue.
More info, and more photos, after the break …
The avalanche fractured about 12 inches deep and ran more than a thousand vertical feet on a recent crusty layer of red dust that blew into the area in advance of a recent storm, said Scott Toepfer, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Toepfer said Brad Sawtell, another CAIC forecaster, was on-scene Saturday afternoon to investigate. According to Sawtell’s initial observations at the scene, the rider probably triggered the slide with his second turn, then turned back into the sliding debris, perhaps unaware that he had already triggered a wet-loose snow slide on the sunny slope.
From the initial field visit, it looked like the slide ran on the reddish-brown dust layer created during a recent windstorm and buried about 12 inches deep under fresh snow.
The avalanche center had been reporting a rash of slides on similar terrain during recent days, as fresh snow, wind, dust and wide temperature variations all contributed to a slide-prone snowpack in the backcountry,
“Our snow tech almost recommended not going in,” said Charles Pitman, who served as the public information officer on the rescue mission. Pitman said the rescue involved 37 volunteers altogether (13 in the field), including members of the Summit County Rescue Group, Vail Mountain Rescue and the Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team.
After traveling part of the way on snowmobiles, the rescuers reached the accident scene on skis, Pitman said. Pitman said that, as rescue workers started up the Miners Creek Trail near Frisco, the snowmobiles were sinking into the wet, unconsolidated snow, with running water visible underneath.
“Initially we took Flight For Life in, but we couldn’t figure out a place to land,” Pitman said, explaining that the skis used for snow landings had already been removed from the chopper, Additionally, the pilot estimated wind gusts up to 60 MPH, making for challenging flying conditions.
Based on those early challenges, Pitman said rescue team leaders told the two snowboarders that they would have to self rescue, at least for a while, to reach a safer zone.
Ultimately, a U.S. Army pilot from the High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site in Eagle flew a Black Hawk helicopter to the site and evacuated the injured snowboarder, who suffered a broken leg in the slide. The pilot then made a second flight to evacuate the remaining 11 rescue workers in fading twilight, Pitman said.
“What these backcountry rescuers have to understand is, that even though it looks nice out there, when the snow piles up 12 or 14 inches deep, there’s still a significant avalanche hazard out there, even in early May,” Pitman said.
Traveling safely in the high-alpine zone in spring requires an early morning start. Skiing is safest when only the top couple of inches of snow are softening. By 2 p.m. — when the call for this rescue came in — the snowpack has often reached a point of instability.
“This is a time when people start going after those bigger lines, but it’s not that safe spring-time riding,” said Toepfer, explaining that recent weather conditions have resulted in a snowpack with winter-like characteristics.
“Those are plum lines,” Toepfer said. Many local backcountry skiers covet the slopes the prominent peak, identified as Peak 2 on U.S. Geological Survey maps but often called Tenmile Peak by locals. “But they are pretty committing lines with big consequences. There aren’t a lot of safe zones. Given the winds and new snow … building new slab, it’s probably not a good idea to be out there on a 35-degree slope right now,” he said, adding that the avalanche center has been reporting slides on similar slopes in the Tenmile Range the past few days.
Toepfer, a long-time Summit resident and avid backcountry skier, said he’s been eyeing those same lines for 25 years — deciding only once in all that time that the snowpack was safe enough to make the descent.
Toepfer said the dust layer will continue to be a recurring problem in the coming days and weeks. Even when the dust is buried, the sun’s rays can penetrate up to 18 inches deep into the snowpack, reaching buried darker layers and heating the snowpack from within and setting up a slippery, lubricated layer conducive to avalanches.
“We could be seeing a lot more of these. We’ve kind of dodged a bullet,” he concluded.
Check in with the CAIC online for new statewide weather and avalanche updates Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons through the end of May.