Army chopper, local teams rescue avalanche victim

Search and Rescue workers lower an avalanche victim from Peak 2 in the Tenmile Range in Summit County, Colorado.
Rescuers use fixed ropes to lower an injured avalanche victim from the steep slopes of Peak 2 (Tenmile Peak) in the Tenmile Range near Frisco, Colorado. PHOTO BY AARON PARMET.

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.

Avalanche in the Tenmile Range near Frisco, Colorado.
The wet, loose-snow slide that injured a snowboarder in the Tenmile Range Saturday fractured about a foot deep and ran more than 1,000 vertical feet on a reddish-brown dust crust. PHOTO BY AARON PARMET, Summit County Rescue Group.

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.

Search and rescue team members secure an injured snowboarder in a rescue sled Saturday before evacuating him from the steep backcountry slopes of the Tenmile Range near Frisco. PHOTO BY AARON PARMET.

“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.

The steep slopes of the Tenmile Range above Frisco, in Summit County, Colorado offer some choice backcountry lines, but are prone to dangerous avalanches.

16 thoughts on “Army chopper, local teams rescue avalanche victim

  1. Great detailed post, analysis, and photos – especially that great shot of the slide. I’m pretty experienced skiing the back country. I’m also real cautious, and just my glances at your recent weather logs made it clear it was foolish to go out.

    These jerks put others in danger and cost a lot of money to taxpayers. I think it’s time fools like this have to pay a very significant portion of rescue costs. I would imagine the costs would run over $20k at least. So a couple boarders can snag a couple of plum lines.

    I’m sure you’ve thought a lot about the issue. What’s the solution? Insurance? I’m sure lots of folks wouldn’t have the money to pony up, but maybe they could be civil penalties that would stick on their records for a long time so they’d have the incentive to pay it off in a payment plan or something.

    1. I have a long-established reputation of reporting on avalanches and rescues in a factual, non-judgmental and educational way, and name-calling doesn’t help the situation. Rushing to judgment is always dangerous. For all we know, these individuals had a search and rescue card that will help defray the cost of rescue. Before knowing those facts, it’s premature to criticize them. I think that, as a community where outdoor activity is a way of life, we’ve reached a widespread consensus that rescues should remain a free service, and a big focus of the rescue group has been to make sure people know that they should call for help and not to hesitate because they’re worried about possible costs. I don’t believe there is a direct cost to taxpayers, either, other than the time of any sheriff’s deputies involved in the rescue. And the Summit sheriff’s office has two deputies charged with backcountry duties, so that’s just part of their regular salary. Often, the families of rescued individuals, or the individuals themselves, do make donations to the Summit County Rescue Group if they can afford it.

  2. Well that’s part of the reason I asked questions. Helicopters cost money (a lot). The army is paid for by tax dollars. The other helicopter I believe is paid for by tax dollars (at least in part, no?). I in no way want to discourage calls for rescue.

    Even as to the deputies, presumably (and that is a big presumption) they would be doing other productive work but for the rescue. If after their normal hours, overtime might be involved. I don’t know.

    I don’t claim to have all the answers. I do know in the conditions you reported, one should ascend when stuff is solidly frozen and decend when some (but not too much corn develops).

    I would hope being liable for rescue costs would make you refrain from dangerous conduct. Just like we don’t drive our cars in a way that is reckless both becaue of the human injury involved plus the fines, criminal penalties, insurance costs, etc.

    I look forward to hearing about these cards. I have never heard of them. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that there’s a consensus unless those forming part of the alleged consensus know all of the costs involved. To act as if it’s just some deputies at work and to ignore the huge cost (not to mention carbon producing fossil fuels) of two helicopters is beyond naive.

    If a “consensus” is based on completely false reports that minimize the actual costs, then there is no real consensus.

  3. for info about the CORSAR card. It is not insurance. It pays into a fund which the SAR teams statewide can request reimbursement from under certain situations. Flight for Life is a privately owned company, usually treated as an “Air Ambulance” under your personal health insurance plan, and may or may not be covered, in part or in full. They are not part of SAR, so if the subject is being transported, they DO get the bill (or their insurance does) for that ride. If the helo is used to transport SAR members or perform searches, then the cost can come out of the CORSAR funds. Therefore, the cost does not pass to the taxpayer. I’m told the military helos call it “training” and are budgeted for such things. In otherwords, no extra taxes have to be taken from each of us to make up the cost of rescues or searches. If people know they will be sent a hefty bill for a rescue, they won’t call for help in the first place, making matters much worse. Granted, people do dumb things, and we wish we could make them responsible for the expenses incurred, but accidents happen to anyone/everyone, and it could be your turn or my turn next, regardless of expertise or skill or amount of wisdom exercised.

  4. Thanks, Sandra. That information was very informative. Obviously, though, if reimbursement were made, there would be more money in the coffers of these various agencies (SAR) or the military, or whatever. That money might them need less money for other thiings. It’s still money, no matter what it’s called. The balloon boy incident really brought this issue to the forefront, and even before the fraud was discovered, it was clear the “idiotic” parents were at least grossly negligent and should pay for their own mistakes, just as the rest of us have to when we cause damages.

    I share your concerns about the incentive not to call issue. Frankly, to use an analogy, I think strict penalties for DUIs create a lot of hit and runs, and maybe someone who stays and renders aid should get some credit at sentencing. It may seem like a strange analogy, but it all boils down to incentives and cost-benefit analyses. I think the solution is a pure insurance requirement, just like we have for driving a car.

    One more question, I know Europe has a system for paying for rescue costs (or at least most Alp countries did). Do you know how that has fared? I vaguely recall reading about an insurance policy they have that can be purchased. I’ve had some hairy backcountry emergencies where I only made it out at night, and couldn’t reach any rescuers. I would definitely have called, though, no matter what!

  5. top dollar bob, although it’s not “happy news”
    I enjoy the photos and in depth coverage

  6. I’m not familiar with how rescues and funding work in Europe or other international theaters since I’ve not traveled overseas. I’m really only familiar with how it works here in the US. I have heard of insurance for international mountaineering, so perhaps someone else reading this can help answer that. There are a few US states trying to charge for rescues (OR, UT, NH are the ones I’ve heard about), but the overwhelming evidence & opinion is to keep it as a no-charge scenario with all-volunteer teams for the best results. Buy your CORSAR card, donate to your local SAR teams (tax write-off), and pray that you never need them, but if you do, know that you can call 911 and not be billed by SAR for the search or rescue. At least not in Colorado. And check your health insurance about Flight for Life (air ambulance). That’s good to know regardless of when/where you may need them, if ever.

    1. I have traveled to Europe and skied in Switzerland and Chamonix and the one thing I noticed immediately is that when you bought your lift ticket, they suggested you also spend a couple Euros to get the insurance. NSP doesn’t exist in Europe so you are told up front you will have to pay for any cost of rescue on the hill. It’s not free like it is here in the States (people don’t really realize how lucky they are having this free service). People happily bought it. It wasn’t that expensive.

      As for backcountry, I’m not as familiar with that but I’m pretty sure it’s free of charge as well from folks I talked to while there. And people get into some serious trouble in Chamonix! The main thing I noticed in my time in Europe is that people seem to take more responsibility for themselves there. They don’t seem to just do things thinking SAR will get them out. This is also just my opinion from the time I spent there and what I experienced.

      The problem I have with this topic is where is the line between people being responsible for their actions while at the same time making sure people feel free to call for help when needed? I have worked in SAR in CA for 2 years, and working on getting on a team here, and the thing that always bothered me is the risk and cost to everyone involved in the rescue when people just didn’t bother to pay attention to their surroundings or to be properly prepared. I remember a rescue we did in Northern CA for 2 lost snowboarders that continually ignored patrol at a ski resort, finally got lost out of bounds, a massive search was performed all night, and then they walked out in the morning after breaking into a cabin to spend the night. They were oblivious to the massive search initiated for them. Seemed rather annoyed about the fuss. This rescue also busted the budget of the small rural county it happened in when they had to launch the rescue. This blatant irresponsibility is what irks me. Personal responsibility in America is definitely falling by the wayside. I also work in EMS, and that’s one of the things that bothers me most about the public. The lack of personal responsibility.

      There is a great small film from France called “The Assumption of Risk” and it discusses this topic after a rescue in the French Alps where 2 rescuers were killed trying to rescue 4 snowboarders that decided snowboarding in high avalanche conditions was a great idea. The film talks to the rescuers and their feelings about the risks and the people they rescue. It’s a very thought provoking film for those in the field.

      I know I’m going against the grain being an EMS/SAR worker and not screaming “No cost for Rescue”, but it’s a Catch 22 for me. I’m there if you need me, but I also don’t like being put at high risk because you didn’t think about it ahead of time. Granted, accidents happen, but a lot more things seem to happen just because people feel entitiled to do what they do.

      It will always be a delema for me…

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed comment, especially the example from NorCal … oblivious is the right word. I’m sure there is a better way than pure no-cost rescue, but it would take a lot of collaboration to make it work. The heart of the equation is the personal responsibility that you refer to. It seems one thing to rescue people who were well prepared, knew the risks, tried to avoid them, but ended up in trouble. It’s just a pain when you have to rescue someone who is just plain thoughtless.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful posts. Chilkoot you raise more eloquently than I the dilemma. If we assume people would take the monetary cost into account before seeking rescue, it follows they’d also take the monetary cost into account in deciding to be more careful and take fewer imprudent risks.

    Thanks for mentioning that film. I’m familiar with that incident.

    In all of this, it’s important to remember that rescue is not “free” under any of the systems discussed on this thread – it’s just a question of who bears the cost. I’m still coming down for mandatory rescue insurance. A very small minority of people engage in risky backcountry pursuits. An insurance policy would pool the risks, put the costs on those enjoying their adventures, yet not make an individual incident so costly that an individual would fear calling for help.

    And the “costs” are not just monetary, as pointed out. They include the risks others performing the rescue are put in too.

    Bob, it’s been a couple of days now since the rescue. Have you found out any of the particular circumstances of what the rescued parties did to get in their predicament. Without knowing more, its still seems that they may have been greedy and went for shots too late in the day. I missed summiting Mt. Shasta as our ski mountaineering training camp turned back so we could make base camp before conditions got too soft. We still had some sweet court on the descent though!

    Not wanting to jump to conclusions and get jumped on to boot, I thought maybe you had some follow-up.

    1. Yes, the potential risk to rescuers is definitely part of the equation. Another part of the “cost” is the lost economic productivity when the rescuers leave their day jobs.

      As far as the snowboarders, it seems pretty clear from existing information that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, not sure much followup is needed. I’ll wait until the CAIC posts a full accident report which should include some of those details in a non-judgmental, objective way.

      One suggestion I’ve heard is that a small tax on outdoor gear could be used to create money for a rescue fund. although some companies like BC Access, already pour a lot of resources into preventive education.

  8. Thanks Bob: I used to enjoy reading those books “Accidents in North American mountaineering 1998” That do a breakdown of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented. Also good for pointing out the opportunity cost. That’s why a went off pretty quick when you first suggested the only cost was sherff’s time and they were already being paid salary.

    I think the term “non-judgmental” is pretty useless and is not even used much by liberals any more. Judgment is necessary to make any decision. Just saying they were in the wrong place at wrong time is a judgment.

    Sounds like the two boarders were non-judgmental.
    A lot of my upset with them is wet snow avalanche scenario is so easy to predict and avoid.

    Still go for the insurance idea instead of a tax. I always wore the backcountry type clothing rather than the fashion style just for inbounds skiing. The idea is to put the cost onto those using the service as much as possible, but still spread the risk within that group. A tax reduces demand for the product by making it more costly. It’s tough enough these days to afford anything beyond basic necessities.

    I hope these two have the good judgment and courtesy to publicly thank the rescuers and apologize to the public for their conduct.

    This has been quite an interesting thread, and I have a feeling it’s not over yet.

    1. Lady, you sound like a character straight out of the South Park cartoon. Can’t you just wait for the facts before you start slinging mud and bull feces.

      If you are interested in how other places fund their SAR specific for these types of rider rescue, you don’t even need to look at Europe. Just look at TCSAR, in WY; Mt. Hood, OR; Glacier, WA; UT; or even AK. You may not have heard but these places have a decent size ski mountaineering/touring community.

      Oh yeah, before considering yourself as knowledgeable about avy as Bruce Tremper or Theo Meiner, you and 95% of the colorado winter bc users should take an avalanche class then hire a guide (please tip him/her well) b/c CAIC statistics does not look good for this season. Your statement, “wet snow avalanche scenario is so easy to predict”, does not inspire confidence.

      Even with avy education, the odds are not in your favor because it takes time and experience to develop now-casting and decision-making skills. Wearing “backcountry type clothing” (whatever that is?) does not mitigate your risks in the bc.

      By the way, referring snowboarders as “boarders” shows your age (nothing wrong with that). “Rider” is a more contemporary term.

      1. It would be nice to stay away from personal attacks completely and refreshing to see the comment section used for helping get more good information about avalanches and backcountry safety spread around.

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