Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2008-01-12
Submitted By: CAIC
Place: East Vail Chutes, near the King Tut and Old Mans Chutes
State: CO
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 2 skiers caught, 1 partially buried, 1 buried and killed

***CAIC Preliminary Report***

posted 01/13/08

There was a fatal avalanche in the East Vail area Saturday morning. Two skiers were caught in an avalanche on a northeast facing slide path, near last week?s fatal avalanche. On skier was caught, partially buried, and able to self rescue. The other skier was fully buried and killed. Other parties assisted in the rescue. Initial reports put the dimensions similar to last week?s avalanche, about 4 feet deep, 1-200 feet wide, and running about 1000 vertical feet. There were three skier triggered avalanches on Loveland Pass Saturday afternoon. All were on southerly aspects above treeline, about 3 feet deep, 100-300 feet wide, running 200-400 vertical feet. There were plenty of avalanches reported earlier in the week. The largest slide reported occurred early Thursday southwest of Copper Mountain, on Jacques Ridge. It was a natural slide on an east aspect, 12,100?, slope angle in the low 30?s, on a slope observers described as an infrequent producer. Shrine bowl avalanched naturally Wednesday or Thursday, wrapping 800 feet wide around east and northeast aspects. Sounds like there was a close call on Ptarmigan Ridge, when a snowboarder triggered a big avalanche and managed to escape while seeing "car sized chunks of snow go past him." Recent avalanche activity has been on north, east, south, west aspects and everything in between. The east, southeast, and south aspects are particularly sensitive to human triggering.

Wind and snow over the past week have added up to quite the stack of slabs on north through east to south aspects and cross drifted around terrain features on other slopes. There are softer slabs sitting on top of harder slabs. The hard slabs can be insidious, appearing strong until you reach the bottom edge where the slab thins. Triggered from the lower margin, the whole slab rips out above you. The softer slabs on top will disguise the hard slabs. Trigger an avalanche higher in the stack, and it can step down to deeper weak layers. Deep in the snowpack is a layer of facets. Faceted grains near the ground have been growing larger and weaker every day, but their distribution is patchy and their strength inconsistent. This makes for a tricky, highly variable avalanche problem.

There plenty of places you can trigger an avalanche, some of them may be big, nasty slides. Take a conservative approach to your backcountry travel. Stick with mellow terrain and be aware of both large avalanche paths and smaller terrain features. Pay attention to those clues the snowpack will give you. You will probably experience plenty of collapses and shooting cracks. Pay attention to these signs because the snowpack is trying to tell you something?it?s primed to avalanche.


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Massive slab of snow kills skier

Under prime avalanche conditions, one slide kills a backcountry skier near Vail, and a climber missing for days near Alamosa is feared dead.

By Kirk Mitchell and Katy Human

The Denver Post

Article Last Updated: 01/13/2008 03:11:38 AM MST

When a slope of snow collapsed and roared down East Vail Chutes on Saturday morning, it buried and killed a local skier and marked the state's fourth avalanche death so far this winter.

"And we're still in early January," said Ethan Greene, a snow physicist with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Boulder.

Avalanches kill five people annually in Colorado, on average, and experts said conditions in much of the state's high country are treacherous, with snow continuing to pile up and put pressure on a very weak layer of snow that fell early in the season.

The mountains' steep terrain, gusty winds and changeable temperatures mean there's always some avalanche danger in the winter here, Greene said.

This year, though, conditions are worse than usual ? and there's little to suggest the slopes will become more stable anytime soon, he said. Snow is expected across the mountains almost daily this week.

At least 18 people have reported getting caught in slides, according to avalanche center figures.

"I'm not one to say you shouldn't go out into the backcountry. I don't like giving advice, but I would seriously consider it right now, if you don't understand where avalanches form and where they run," Greene said.

"We've had so many close calls reported to us in the past two weeks, people getting buried, digging out . . ."

Many of those people, including 20-year-old Lygon Stevens, who disappeared in an avalanche on Little Bear Mountain near Alamosa, were extremely experienced in the backcountry and were carrying equipment to help them survive a possible slide, Greene said.

The two men who were backcountry skiing near Vail on Saturday morning probably had at least some experience, said Eagle County spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly.

The two, 45-year-old Jackie Rossman and 33-year-old Matthew Gustafson, were carrying avalanche beacons and probes, and were skiing in an area of rugged terrain.

A "massive" slab of snow, 900 feet wide and 1,500 feet long, broke loose, sweeping away both men, Cordingly said.

Rossman survived the slide, but it took him nearly an hour to dig himself out, she said

Rossman, who did not have serious injuries, called for help on a cellphone, Cordingly said. Rescuers and dogs searched the snow for several hours before finding Gustafson's body just before dark ? and more than 6 feet deep, Cordingly said.

The avalanche occurred just west of where an avalanche killed 27-year-old Vail snowboarder Jesse Brigham on Jan. 4, she said. It was in the same general area as fatal avalanches in 1992 and 1996, according to the avalanche center.

Sister, 20, still missing

Thirteen rescuers were pulled off Little Bear Mountain east of Alamosa on Saturday afternoon, when conditions became too dangerous for them to continue searching for Stevens.

Stevens, a music student at the University of Northern Colorado, and her 22-year-old brother, Nick, a Colorado State University student, had been hiking in the area for five days when they triggered an avalanche Thursday, Alamosa County Undersheriff John Bianca said.

A slab of snow apparently tumbled off a 100-foot cliff and triggered another avalanche, sweeping the siblings at least 500 feet down the mountain, said the avalanche center's Greene, who investigated the scene by helicopter and on foot Saturday.

Nick Stevens couldn't find his sister and left a tent and other equipment near the avalanche for her to use, he said.

He spent the night on the mountain and hiked until about 8:30 a.m. Friday when his cellphone got enough reception that he could call for help.

Nick Stevens was hospitalized. He and his sister are expert hikers who recently climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska, Bianca said.

Clouds and more snow were rolling into the area Saturday afternoon, and conditions remained treacherous.

"The avalanche that fell, it was almost half the mountainside, and the rest is still there, ready to go," Bianca said.

"We talked with the family, we talked with the avalanche people . . . we all agreed," he said. The group held a small ceremony on the mountain and pulled back. They will search for the young woman's body in May or June, Bianca said.

Also Saturday, rescue teams from Summit County Rescue responded to a 400-foot-wide avalanche on Loveland Pass, said the group's Joe Ben Slivka.

That search was called off when it became clear people were probably not involved, Slivka said.

Meantime, the search for two Albuquerque snowboarders at Wolf Creek Ski Area has turned into a missing-persons investigation. Michael George and Kyle Kerschen, both 27, have been missing since Jan. 5.

Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus said the search was suspended because no signs of their whereabouts have been found. The department has started checking the men's credit-card and cellphone records.

Words of advice

The avalanche center's Greene blamed a snowy October, dry November, and near constant snow since December for today's dangerous mountain conditions.

In many parts of the state, the early snowpack has crumbled into a layer of "sugar snow," which is unstable, he said.

Heavy snows falling on that weak layer can make it slide, he said. And the snow keeps falling, piling on the pressure.

Almost daily since mid-December, the avalanche center has received reports of human-triggered incidents and close calls, Greene said.

Anyone traveling in the backcountry should carry a beacon, a probe pole and a shovel. They should also know what dangerous avalanche conditions look like, he said.

Beyond that, practice great caution, Greene urged.

Some of the avalanches reported in Colorado's mountains in recent days didn't take much to get going, he said ? a few snowshoers, walking quietly across a field at the base of a slope.

"These are not just triggered by a big gnarly skier racing down a chute," Greene said.

"This is a time to be very cautious and careful and get current information so that you know what you're dealing with," Greene said.

Colorado's worst winter for avalanche fatalities since 1950 was 1992-93, when 12 people were killed, according to the avalanche center.

The avalanche center maintains a website and updates conditions daily on a phone message. The information can be obtained at or 303-275-5360.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206 or


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One dead in East Vail Chutes avalanche

Daily News Staff Report

January 12, 2008

VAIL ? An avalanche in the East Vail Chutes buried two skiers today, according to the Eagle County Sheriff's Office. A 911 call came from a skier who was able to free himself.

Rescuers this afternoon located the second skier, who was pronounced dead shortly after. The person's name is being withheld until next of kin are notified. The cause of death is still under investigation pending an autopsy. A preliminary investigation conducted by the Sheriff's Office indicates that the incident is not criminal in nature.

The slide happened near the King Tut and Old Man's Chutes, east of where another avalanche killed Vail skier Jesse Brigham on Jan. 4.

The Vail Public Safety Communications Center was able to pinpoint latitude and longitude coordinates off of the 911 call. Vail Mountain Rescue was immediately deployed. Under the direction of Vail Mountain Rescue, Vail Ski Patrol was asked to assist.

Both skiers were outfitted with avalanche beacons. The East Vail Chutes are part of the backcountry and are not part of Vail Ski Resort.

Avalanche danger in most of the Vail Summit Zone at all elevations was ?considerable? today, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.