Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 1999-12-14
Submitted By: Ron Splittgerber,Diamond Peaks Patrol
Place: near Cameron Pass
State: CO
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 skier caught, buried, and killed

A 21-year-old CSU student (Danny Samelson of Colorado Springs, Colorado) was

buried and killed in a small avalanche Tuesday afternoon, December 14, 1999

near Cameron Pass in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Northern Colorado.

Cameron Pass is a popular backcountry ski/boarding area along SH14 about 55

miles west of Fort Collins. The victim was with two snowboarding friends

when the avalanche occurred at about 1330. The victim on telemark skis was

"skinning up" toward the South summit of Diamond Peaks while his friends

waited lower down on the peak. They did not see him get caught, but started

to search after they saw (or heard) the avalanche. They were joined briefly

by two other friends who then left to get help. With no last seen area the

remaining pair probed the deposition area with snow boards and shovels in

randomly selected spots. It appeared they were probing too far above where

the victim was later discovered. After making sure help was on the way the

other two returned to the accident site, but then left to guide additional

rescuers back to the site.

The Larimer County Sheriff's Department was notified of the accident about

one hour later. While search and rescue team members responded several

Colorado State Forest Service employees searched some of the debris with

probe poles. The search was postponed shortly after darkness due to poor

visibility and additional wind loading.

Diamond Peaks Patrol was requested to assist in rescue attempt at the

reported avalanche site. The call came at 7:30pm December 14 followed by a

briefing at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) of Larimer County. Patrol

members met with other volunteers from Larimer County Search and Rescue at

6am, Wednesday December 15 at the EOC and were dispatched at 6:30am. The

missing skier's name was Danny Samelson.

Rescue team members arrived at the Cameron Pass parking area at about

7:45am, and a Hasty column including Sarah Clements from the patrol arrived

at the avalanche site about 9am. A second column of avalanche trained rescue

dogs, and other members of the patrol arrived at the site about 9:30am. Once

the Hasty team dug snow pits and determined that the site was stable enough

to attempt a rescue, the Team with the rescue dogs was deployed on the

disposition area. Within 10 minutes of deployment, the dogs indicated a

find, and a team member probing the area found a glove, and a probe found

the victim's ski boot. The victim was uncovered by the team used snow

shovels by 10:30am. There was an ice mask around the face with about 4" of

air space. The victim had a laceration about 2" long on the left side of the

head along the hairline of the forehead, and the snow was stained around the

head from this injury. There were no other obvious injuries or broken bones,

except a slight deformity of the right lower-leg just above the ski boot. We

found no snow in the victims ears (his hat and one glove was still on) or

his nose or mouth. His boot and one hand were about 4" below the surface,

head downhill and his face and body were about 3' below the surface. County

Coroner's office listed cause of death as severing of spinal cord at C1.

While waiting for the Sheriff's office to obtain permission to remove the

victim, a group of patrollers climbed to the fracture line above the area

where the victim was caught. Sarah Clements dug a hasty pit directly along

the fracture and found that the snow has slid on a weak layer about 14"

above the ground. The fracture line was about 2' deep above the weak layer.

The slop was approx. 45d in the starting zone, and went to the ground after

running about 100 yards to the deposition area another 50 yards down the

slope. The deposition area averaged about 5' depth. The fracture line ran

both right and left of the area the victim was found, with the main slide

splitting around a rock out-cropping. Another fracture line and deposition

area existed adjacent to the area the victim was found but did not run as

far. The deposition area where the victim was found was about 40 yards top

to bottom and about 60 yards wide.

There was approximately 8" of new snow from the Monday storm, and the wind

transported 4-6" of snow back onto the slide area overnight. The temperature

was 20C below, and winds gusted to approximately 35 mph, steady 15 mph

during the day. As we climbed to the hasty pit, we found many pockets of

very unstable snow remaining, though none of it slide downhill, rather just

settled as we crossed. In addition to the weak layer about 14" above ground,

there was an unconsolidated, faceted layer of snow 6-8" deep above the

ground, and 5 or 6 other distinct layers in the entire snow pack. Areas that

did not slide adjacent to the main area did not have the weak layer at 14"

above the ground, but still have the faceted layer just above ground level.

Sarah may have more data for us from her initial assessment with the hasty


Once given permission to move the victim, patrollers and SAR team members

pulled the victim out on a sled, with a belay rope for safety. Eric Allstott

and Heather Rueth provided head and tail for the sled most of the way down

with others packing trail and assisting in steeper areas and around snags.

We arrived at the parking lot with the sled at about 2:45 pm.

The slope was directly East-facing slope, toe of deposition at 11,100'. The

fracture was at approx 11,500' and a sympathetic fracture ran on an adjacent

slope to the north which had a ENE-facing slope. The slide to the North only

ran about 100 yards because the slope angle tapers to about 25d more

quickly, and we didn't find the unstable layer at 14" above ground level as

we did on the East-facing slope.

Data pit was sort of 2nd thought, because a number of team members were

becoming hypothermic, and we had to deal with county coroner and family

members. Sarah Clements may have some more insight, and we'll pass that

along also. We were able to sneak a few turns in on the way down, but even

found pockets that would collapse in the trees. There isn't enough snow to

cover snags, so caution overcame our desire to do some aggressive skiing.

Initial visual inspection of the avalanche site identified two major areas

of potential hazard that could affect the safety of the search group: the

first being a large pillow of unreleased snow approximately 150 ft directly

above the left side of the crown, and the second being an unreleased zone

adjacent to the right flank and above the potential designated safety zone

and staging area for the search group.

The large pillow on the left side was determined unstable and unlikely to

run naturally without a trigger. An avalanche guard with a whistle was then

posted throughout the search.

Two patrollers followed the right ridge up to the area of concern until

above Danny's highest ski track heading into the right flank of the slide,

where they then dug a hasty pit. No settling occurred on the way up and the

snow pack felt stable. The pit was approximately 28" deep with four

distinct layers. All measurements are approximate since only a ski pole

was used to measure.

28" - 25" 4 finger new wind transported snow with slight wind crust on top

25" - 14" 1 finger consolidated rounded crystals

14" - 0" 1 finger consolidated faceted crystals

Two shovel shears produced an easy fracture at 14", though no obvious sun,

ice, or wind crust was present. A sun crust above an unconsolidated layer

approximately 8" from the ground was present in the snow pack below and

adjacent to the potential hazard area where they dug the pit, but was not

present in the hasty pit snow pack. The absence of this

unconsolidated faceted layer below a sun crust may have been the reason why

that area of snow was still there and had not released with the rest of the


The two patrollers took turns ski cutting the potential hazard area with no

settling occurring, determining the area directly above the staging area to

be stable.

Crown Profile and Hasty Pit

The crown profile of the fracture line was done above and to the left of

where the safety hasty pit was dug and above the rock outcrop that separated

the two main avalanche tracks. Due to time constraints, the crown profile

and hasty pit was done in roughly four minutes.

Crown Profile

The crown depth was approximately 38", though depth varied as low 24" in a

few spots in the area were the measurements were taken. There were six

distinct layers in the profile.

38" - 35" 4 fingers new wind transported snow with slight wind crust

35" - 30" 1 finger consolidated rounded crystals

30" - 24" 1 finger consolidated rounded crystals

24" - 17" 1 finger consolidated rounded/faceted crystals

17" - 8" 4 fingers consolidated faceted crystals

8" - 0" sun/wind crust above unconsolidated faceted crystals (4

fingers). There was not an obvious ice lens present, though a hand

lense was not used.

The hasty pit done on the bed surface found 3" of fresh wind blown snow on

top of the 8" unconsolidated faceted layer. The top bed surface crystals

were 1 mm and faceted. The bed surface directly below the crown appeared to

be well anchored to the rocks and was homogeneous before going to the ground

in heterogeneous strips 15 - 40 ft below the crown.

A shovel shear was not performed. It is very likely that the layer at 24"

would have sheared, being very similar to the layers in the initial hasty


Several news reports have mentioned cornice failures. There were no signs

of cornice failure. The nearest cornices were 200 - 300 yds above the

avalanche site.

(Snow pit observations by Sarah Clements)

Patrol members involved in the search and rescue include:

Eric Allstott

Tom Bates

Sarah Clements

Tim Gaines

Mark Richtermeyer

Heather Reuth

John Tillema

Ron Splittgerber

Dave Zader arrived to assist just after noon.

Thanks to everyone for assisting in the effort!


Ron Splittgerber