Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: CAIC; Dale Atkins
Place: Mount Guyot, west of Breckenridge
Summary: 1 Snowmobiler caught, buried, and killed
OFFICIAL REPORT FROM CAIC.
Georgia Pass * Mt Guyot
March 10, 2004
1 snowmobiler buried and killed
Just before noon the season's first fatal avalanche occurred about 6 miles east-southeast of the town of Breckenridge. The victim, a 39-year-old Lakewood man was snowmobiling with his brother and a friend when the victim triggered a sizable avalanche on the east side of point 12,201. This sub-peak is the high point of Mt. Guyot's north flank. (On March 18, 2002 a close call occurred in the same general area.)
The three riders -- not apart of any commercial or guided tour -- started in Park County and rode north and over Georgia Pass into Summit County. They spent the morning riding in the Georgia Pass area. Late in the morning the trio followed the trail past a cabin -- known by locals as the "Avalanche Cabin" where two other riders were staying. The trio continued onto a bench covered by debris from an avalanche that likely released days earlier.
The victim drove across undisturbed snow at the bottom of the broad slope. The second rider -- the victim's brother -- stopped below a thick stand of trees while the third member of the group remained parked on the bench. The victim turned around and started back across toward his waiting brother when the avalanche released. Only the trees kept both brothers from being caught and swept away.
Immediately after the avalanche the two men went to get help. One drove back to the Avalanche Cabin where the two other riders were hanging out. These riders had beacons, shovels, and probes. They sped to the avalanche. The other friend drove to a group of guided riders on Georgia Pass. From the top of Georgia Pass the guide from Good Times Adventure Tours was able to radio in and report the accident.
The Summit County Sheriff's office mobilized the Summit County Rescue Group and the Fly for Life helicopter. The helicopter picked up three ski patrollers and an avalanche rescue dog from the Breckenridge Ski Area and flew to the site.
While the Breckenridge avalanche dog searched the others spot probed in likely burial areas. One probe struck the victim's helmet, and the dog confirmed the spot. The victim was found buried about 2 feet down and for about 2 hours.
The avalanche triggered by the rider was classified as HS-AV-3-O/G. Though a seemingly large avalanche it was only medium-sized relative to the avalanche path. The fracture line ranged from about 1 to 6 feet deep though the most of the fracture line was only 2 feet deep. The avalanche released both on the ground and on an old snow layer, and the slide extended just over 700 feet across the slope. The slide released from about 12100 feet and fell 480 vertical feet on this easterly-facing slope. The slope angle at the fracture line was 37 degrees, but the man triggered the avalanche from the bottom of the slope where the angle was much less.
Our Summit County forecaster Brad Sawtell is up at the site today and we will posted more details as we investigate this accident.
Atkins, 3/11/2004 at 1500
Please visit: www.denverpost.com
Article Published: Thursday, March 11, 2004
'Monstrous' avalanche kills snowmobile rider
By Steve Lipsher
Denver Post Mountain Bureau
BRECKENRIDGE - A Lakewood snowmobile rider became the first avalanche fatality of the season in Colorado after a "monstrous" slide chased him down the flank of a Summit County mountain on Wednesday.
The body of 39-year-old Darin Heitman was found by a rescue dog beneath 3 feet of snow on the north side of Mount Guyot, a prominent landmark west of Breckenridge.
Riding with two other snowmobilers high in a bowl near timberline sometime before 12:30 p.m., Heitman reportedly never saw the avalanche bearing down on him as he maneuvered his sled back downhill after momentarily getting it stuck, according to authorities.
"This avalanche was monstrous," said Bill Hanley, the member of the Summit County Search and Rescue team who found the victim with the help of his avalanche dog, Nellie.
Investigators initially estimated the avalanche was 400 yards wide and ran 200 yards, fracturing anywhere from 2 to 6 feet deep and leaving a massive debris pile scattered in the trees, where the man's battered body was found at 2:18 p.m.
Along his brother and a friend, Heitman had started his trip in Jefferson, a small settlement in Park County. They crested 11,585-foot Georgia Pass, where the group left the trail for some turns in untracked powder on their powerful Polaris snowmobiles, all privately owned.
Brian Holt, owner of Good Times snowmobile tours, based 7 miles from Georgia Pass, said he doesn't take clients into the bowl because of the obvious avalanche danger.
"Absolutely not," he said. "There's a cabin up there called 'Avalanche Cabin.' That should give you an idea what it's like."
Earlier in the day, forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center noted that recent warm weather had helped consolidate the mountain snowpack but that underlying weak layers still could trigger avalanches.
"I figured it would take more than (the weight of) a human," said Knox Williams, director of the state agency. "I said that probably means a snowmobile."
Not one of the men was equipped with standard avalanche-safety gear, limiting their efforts at rescue.
"You probably can't emphasize enough that if you're going to be in the backcountry, you should have an avalanche beacon and know how to use it and have probes and shovels because your best chance of being saved is your friends," said Glen Kraatz, the mission leader for the rescue team. "Unfortunately, by the time we get there, it's often too late."
The survivors - one of whom narrowly escaped being trapped by the avalanche - were able to flag down a guide from Good Times, who used a handheld radio to pass on an emergency message.
Within about 15 minutes of the call, a Flight For Life helicopter had flown members of the Breckenridge ski patrol and a search dog to the scene. But the victim was not found immediately and had suffered significant trauma, said Summit County Undersheriff Derek Woodman.
About 20,000 avalanches are believed to cascade down the mountains in Colorado each year, killing an average of six people. The vast majority of snowslides occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees - not incidentally the same steepness preferred for skiing and snowmobiling.
"It's a classic slope for avalanches," Hanley said, patting his yellow Labrador rescue dog. "There are a lot of old avalanches in that area, which, to me, is a red flag, too."
In the aftermath of the accident, the two distraught survivors rode down to the Good Times base to provide statements to authorities.
Then, a short time before the body was brought down in a rescue sled, wrapped in a blue bag, they climbed back on their snowmobiles for a trip back over Georgia Pass, escorted by a member of the rescue team.
"We'll stop at the top of the pass, and I'll let you ...," the unidentified rescuer said, his voice trailing off as he searched for words to prepare the men for revisiting the scene of the tragedy.
"We'll stop at the top of the pass."