CSAC Avalanche Incident

Colorado - December 30, 1997

[Official Reports] [Media Reports] [Other Sources]

Official Reports

Guanella Pass, Duck Lake (Front Range), Colorado

December 30, 1997

1 snowshoer caught, buried and killed

Accident Summary

Two men were snowshoeing behind a cabin near Duck Lake, just over a mile south of Guanella Pass, when they triggered a slab avalanche. The weather was pleasant: blue skies, gusty winds and mild temperatures. At about 1300 hours the men were crossing beneath a short but steep slope through a small area of willows when they heard "a thud". The snow under their feet collapsed, and like pulling out a log from the bottom of a wood pile, released the slab avalanche from above. The men were about 15 feet apart and the avalanche caught one but missed the other. He quickly looked for his friend, without success, so he dashed back to the cabin where they and their families were staying. The cabin was about 200 feet away.

From the cabin the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office was notified and rescue teams were notified. The victim's friend their wives quickly returned to the avalanche to look for the buried man. They knew basically where to look and started digging, unfortunately they were off by a few feet. After about 45 minutes the CCC Sheriff and another officer arrived. The sheriff took a ski pole and cut off the basket to fashion a probe pole. He started to show the others how to use the pole when he immediately probed the buried man. The 39-year-old California man was buried under 2 to 3 feet of snow near the toe (bottom) of the debris for nearly an hour.

He was quickly dug out and resuscitation efforts started. A Flight for Life helicopter from Denver soon arrived and advanced life support efforts were tried without luck.

Avalanche Data

This avalanche can be classified as a HS-AF-3-O. This small-sized hard slab fractured 3 to 4 feet deep but ran on old snow. It traveled only a short distance, only 60 vertical feet at its longest, but the hard slab had a tremendous amount of stored elastic energy. Located at treeline (11,300 feet) the avalanche ripped out all along the short, steep, terrain-roll for 295 feet across. To the north the fracture line propagated almost another 200 feet, but the slope was not quite steep enough to slide.

The slab was artificially triggered by the weight of the snowshoers. The men triggered the slope from below as they crossed the compression area. Where they were standing the slope was only about 15 degrees in steepness, however, directly uphill of them the slope steepened to 36 degrees. This very short, but steep snow slope faces slightly south of east, and received heavy wind loading over the course of this season, but at the bottom of the slope the snow in the scattered willows was shallow and faceted (sugar like). The wind slab was extremely hard; the snow density of the slab measured up to 49% (490 kg/m3). The men heard the tell-tale "whumpf" that they described as a "thud"-like sound when the snow collapsed beneath them. In a split second the failure propagated uphill releasing the the slab. When 2, maybe 3, seconds it was over: the avalanche had stopped.


This accident occurred in the early season when the general snowcover was still very shallow and to the untrained eye no source of danger. Recent strong winds had stripped much snow off the surrounding mountains. However, the four fundamental requirements for a slab avalanche were present. First was the steep slope, though it was a very short slope, slope angle is more important than size. Second, was the weak layer of sugar snow that provided a poor base for the firmer snow above. Third was the slab, a thick and cohesive layer of wind-deposited snow. At this point the slope only needed a trigger, and tragically that final requirement was provided when the two men snowshoed across the bottom of the slope.

This accident illustrates three important lessons for backcountry travelers. First, shallow snow can harbor avalanche danger especially where winds have drifted snow on to steeper slopes. Second, short and small slopes are just as deadly as long, big slopes. Third, avalanches can be triggered from below, especially when weak faceted (sugar) is supporting a slab layer. It is important to know that most avalanches release from slopes of 30 to 45 degrees in steepness, and equally it is just as important to learn that avalanches can occur when the snow fails on less-steep terrain. If the snowcover is consistent, not broken up by rocky areas, thick vegetation or timber, the fractures can propagate along the weak layer to steeper slopes above and release the slab.

Dale Atkins

Colorado Avalanche Information Center

On Tuesday December 30, Colorado had its first avalanche fatality of the season. A 39-year-old man was snowshoeing with a friend when they triggered a small hard slab avalanche near Guanella Pass in the Front Range of Colorado.

The victim was found by spot probing after about a one-hour burial under 2 feet of snow. Advanced life support techniques failed to revive the man. The avalanche stopped at the feet of the victim's friend.

This was a very sad incident. The two men were snowshoeing behind a mountain cabin at Duck Lake where they were spending the Christmas holidays with their wives and young children. The avalanche occurred less than 200 feet from the cabin.

The avalanche was classified HS-AF-2?-O. The slide was triggered from the compression area and ran only 60 vertical feet at its longest place. The crown face was 3-4 feet deep by 295 feet across.

From the Colorado Avalanche Bulletin, Dec 31 1997

The season's first avalanche death occurred Saturday afternoon on Guanella Pass when a snowshoer was buried 2-3 feet deep in a hardslab avalanche. It was a very small avalanche...only 60 vertical feet by 250 feet across...that he triggered the slide from below. The avalanche occurred on an east-facing slope at treeline. Recent strong winds in the Front Range area had created the slab conditions.

Media Reports

One dies in avalanche

By Steve Garnaas and Jim Hughes
Denver Post Staff Writers

Dec. 31 - A former Coloradan who returned to the mountains for the holidays was killed Tuesday when he triggered an avalanche on Guanella Pass while snowshoeing near a cabin he was renting with his family and friends.

Jean Campestre, 39, had recently moved to California from Bailey. At about 1 p.m., Campestre and a friend ventured out on snowshoes about 200 yards away from their cabin at Duck Lake. Described as an experienced skier and mountaineer, Campestre died after he triggered an avalanche. The slide was about 75 yards wide and ran for 50 yards, said Sheriff Don Krueger.

He was dead when rescuers dug him out from under about 5 feet of consolidated snow at about 11,000 feet elevation.

He had been buried for about an hour and a half, Krueger said.

Julie Holmes, who owns the Alpendorf on the Lake guest lodge where Campestre and his friends were staying, said that she had never seen the area slide before.

"Not in this location," she said. "Not since I've been here. Obviously (the danger) is there, but it just hasn't run for a long, long time."

She said the area had received a small amount of fresh snow over the weekend but that the wind had been blowing mightily for several days. High winds are a common factor in the formation of slab avalanches.

Holmes was at work in Empire when she heard about the slide. She immediately called the cabin to see if anyone was hurt.

Campestre's 11-year-old son, one of four children, answered the phone.

"He said that his father (and the other snowshoer) had gone out and that (the other snowshoer) was OK, but his dad was under the snow," she said.

Holmes quickly got in her car and drove the 45 minutes to Duck Lake. When she got there, she saw the children sitting around the kitchen table, drawing, while rescuers from the sheriff's department, the highway department and the U.S. Forest Service tried to revive the still body of their father up the hill.

"This is just horrible," Holmes said Tuesday night from her Duck Lake home. "This is my favorite place in the whole world." Campestre apparently watched an avalanche awareness video on television earlier this week. Afterward, he said that was the way he'd want "to go" instead of being hooked up to tubes in a hospital, Holmes said.

The avalanche broke apart in large slabs and blocks as it tumbled down the hill for about 50 yards until it came to rest, burying Campestre.

After not hearing any sounds from the snow or seeing any movement, his companion scurried back to the cabin and called 911. Krueger was the first to respond and drove to the scene, about 14 miles from Georgetown.

The sheriff grabbed a ski pole and broke off the basket to use as a probe. In his first jab into the snow, Krueger struck "something you never felt before but know it's something that doesn't feel right when you push something into snow." "It was just plumb-ass luck that I found him so fast," he said.

About that time rescue personnel were starting to arrive. Guanella Pass, the direct route between Interstate 70 and U.S. 285, is a popular drive much of the year, particularly in the autumn when the aspen are changing. The road over the pass is plowed in the winter.

Campestre is the first to die in an avalanche in Colorado since the winter of 1995-96, when seven people died. There were no such deaths last winter.

Other Sources