CSAC Avalanche Incident

San Juan Mtns, Colorado - January 21, 1998

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Official Reports


On Wednesday, January 21, 1998, an avalanche on the Uncompahgre NF, approx. 10 miles southwest of Telluride, CO, claimed the life of a 25 year-old Telluride male. This incident occurred at approx. 10,800 ft. on San Bernardo Mountain, just outside the Lizard Head Wilderness and above the San Bernardo subdivision which is just off Hwy 145, north of Lizard Head Pass. The victim, his dog, and one male companion, another Telluride local, ascended the mountain in the early afternoon. The two men were equipped with avalanche transceivers and shovels. It is unknown at this time if they had probes. As the two descended, the victim on a snowboard and his companion on skis, they apparently became separated when the skier fell. Approximately 20 minutes transpired before the skier realized that the slope below him had avalanched. He descended the slope and observed only the dog's tracks exiting below the avalanche deposition. The skier initiated a transceiver search and located his companion in approximately 20 minutes (at least 40 minutes after the avalanche occurred). The victim was cyanotic, breathless and pulseless, buried beneath approximately 3 feet of snow. The skier administered CPR to no avail and then skied to the subdivision below and reported the incident to the San Miguel County Sheriff at about 5:30 pm. County Search & Rescue personnel responded, but since it was now dark, postponed body recovery until the next day.

Early the next morning Telluride Helitrax, the local heli-ski permittee peformed aerial avalanche control using explosives, initiating several small avalanches in the gully where the accident occurred as well as adjacent slide paths. The victim's body was then extricated by Search & Rescue personnel, utilizing a long-line from the helicopter. The cause of death was apparently asphyxiation as there were no obvious signs of trauma.

The avalanche accident occurred in the southernmost couloir or gully (an obvious slide path) above the San Bernardo subdivision. While this particular couloir faces generally east, the avalanche starting zone extended from east to southeasterly aspects at approx. 10,800 feet. This fatal avalanche was apparently triggered by the victim approximately midway down the gully. The 12-18", soft slab release fractured approximately 100 feet wide, starting from a slope angle of approx. 35 degrees in the middle of the gully and extending to a steep, rocky rollover where the slope angle is approx. 60 degrees. The avalanche ran about 200 linear feet down the gully and a little more than 100 feet vertically. Deposition up to six feet deep in the center of the couloir was noted.

The weather on Jan. 21 was sunny with high temps in the low 20s F. A major wind event occurred in the area on Jan. 19, with very strong W-N-NW winds with gusts over 80 mph. The wind calmed considerably in the afternoon and was followed by approx. 12" of new, very low density snow, overnight into the early morning of Jan. 20. The low temp. overnight on the 20th was 10 degrees F. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecast for Jan. 21 included an avalanche hazard rating of "Considerable" with pockets of "High" hazard for the western San Juan Mountains, with likelihood for skier triggered releases.

Several larger, natural avalanches were observed by the Telluride Ski Patrol on the afternoon of Jan. 19, precipitated by strong wind-loading in the starting zones. Control work on Jan. 20 released numerous new snow, soft slabs up to 18" deep at the ski area.

It is not known if the victim and his companion were aware of this forecast or how much formal avalanche training they had. San Bernardo Mountain lies 1/4 mile west of the USFS Matterhorn Work Center. USFS personnel have observed an increase in skiing/boarding on San Bernardo Mountain over the last several years, especially last winter when the notorious San Juan snowpack was uncharacteristically safe.

Bill Dunkelberger
USFS Recreation & Winter Sports Specialist

From the CAIC

There has been another avalanche death in Colorado, and I'm sure you will hear more about it in the news today. All we know at this time is that a back-country skier or snowboarder was buried by an avalanche southwest of Telluride Wednesday afternoon. His companion found him in a beacon search but could not save his life.

San Bernardo Mountain (San Miguel Mountains), Colorado

January 21, 1998

1 backcountry snowboarder caught, buried and killed

Accident Summary

A 25-year-old backcountry snowboarder was buried and killed in a very small slab avalanche on the east side of San Bernardo Mountain in southwestern Colorado. The victim and another man (a skier) borrowed beacons and snowshoes and hiked up San Bernardo Mountain southwest of Ophir to ski and ride the chutes on the east face of the mountain. They were accompanied by a dog. Wearing snowshoes for the ascent it took the men about 3 hours to climb up the south side of the mountain.

The men had already descended about 1,000 vertical feet in suspect snow conditions. The skier was having a difficult time. He kept breaking through the upper layers of the snow pack into the sugar snow, causing falls or causing him getting stuck. The two men separated and the victim continued his descend while the skier untangled himself. The skier continued down and saw a small avalanche with tracks into and out of the debris. He thought the tracks belonged to his friend, so he followed the tracks. A ways down slope he found the dog and quickly realized the tracks out of the avalanche did not belong to his friend but rather to the dog. At that point he put his snowshoes back on and climbed upslope to find the avalanche debris had piled into an old prospect hole.

The skier used his beacon to locate his friend who had been buried in a standing position. His head was about 3 feet deep, but rescue came too late. After a burial of 30-40+ minutes the victim had likely died from suffocation. The skier and dog left to report the accident. The next morning rescuers recovered the body.

Avalanche Data

This avalanche can be classified as a SS-AD-1-O. This very small-sized soft slab fractured 1-foot deep and ran only 80 vertical fee. It released on a layer of buried surface hoar. The avalanche turned deadly when it deposited the victim and debris into an old prospect hole. The snowboarder released the avalanche on a 35 degree slope, but the slope quickly steepened to 60+ degrees as it fell into the shallow hole. The avalanche occurred well below treeline on an east-facing slope at about 10,550 feet.


This accident is a classic example of how even a very small avalanche can turn deadly when the debris piles into a terrain trap. Though the pair were thinking avalanche before they left, they had beacons (borrowed) and shovels. They apparently stopped thinking avalanche when they started up the trail. Perhaps they were too focused on their goal to ski/ride the east side of San Bernardo Mountain. That we don't know, but we do know that this accident also shows how a couple of small andseemingly innocent mistakes can lead to tragedy.

The men's first mistake unknowningly started with their ascend of the mountain. They followed the local's standard approach to the summit that took them up a drainage far away from their descend route. The climb took them up a south-facing slope with very different snow...more stable...conditions then their east-facing descent route. Once onto the east-facing terrain the snow conditions likely changed very quickly, especially as they descended and encountered less deep snow.

A more serious mistake occurred when the pair separated. They had already descended at least a thousand vertical feet in less than good skiing conditions when the victim kept going...for some reason. Once out of sight of each other the skier did not know what had happened to his friend until later when he found the dog. By the time he reacted it was too late.

A more serious clue indicating they stopped thinking avalanche were the snow conditions. The skier kept breaking through into sugar snow and getting stuck in the loose snow. Sugar snow topped with firmer snow are two key ingredients for slab avalanches. Had they been thinking avalanche they likely would have recognized the snow conditions meant avalanches and stuck together and always traveled in sight of each other. Had the skier witnessed the avalanche he likely would have dug his friend out in minutes. The outcome could have been different.

Travel in avalanche terrain means never letting your guard down. Little mistakes like different ascent and descent routes, or temporarily separating from your partners may not seem serious, however, in terms of avalanches the consequences of these minor actions can be deadly.

CAIC, Dale Atkins

Report by: Kit Katzebach, San Miguel SAR member

1 victim - snowboarder, local 25 year old male. Buried completely - head approximately 3 feet deep, with feet approximately 6 feet deep.

San Bernardo Moutain, San Miguel County, CO. Chute was east facing, however the aspect that slide was SSE. Fracture involved new snow, approximately 12" slab, 50' across. The Snow traveled 200' down slope with a vertical distance of 100'. At the crown the slope angle was approximately 35 degrees, however half way down the slide path the slope increased to 60-70 degrees. It was at this steep section that the snowpack pulled out all the way to the dirt.

The survivor used his beacon to locate the victim, then dug him out to the head and shoulders. The victim had no pulse and was not breathing, with blue lips. The survivor then left the scene to go for more help. It was dark when search and rescue got the call so we met with the survivor and planned for the body recovery in the morning. At first light, two SAR members flew with the Helitrax pilot and guide and effected control work with hand charges, and set down the helicopter. The two SAR members then skinned up through the trees (Heli landing zone was half way from San Bernardo developement to the avalanche site) to the accident site. The victim was dug out and long lined out with the helicopter.

Both persons were wearing avalanche beacons, and carrying shovels. The survivor was on ski gear. The decision to ski was precipitated by the fact that the victims friend had left early in the AM that day to ski the same mountain. The victim and survivor got to the trailhead at 1 PM. They chose to ski the chute to the skiers right of the mail chute (the main chute had been skied by the earlier party, and seemed more exposed). They skied in the trees for the first half of the run. The victim was then located below the survivor, he then said that was going into the chute. The survivor followed but fell a few times, and was nervous about how much snow was around, so he pulled out into the trees to regroup himself. When he was ready to ski again, the survivor went back out onto the chute cand saw that the avalanche had happened.

This area is an ugly terrain trap, or the slide would have gone further, if not for the hollow. The 2 persons listened to the avalanche forecast on the radio that morning, they did not have any formal avalanche training, however they had practiced with beacons in the past. They did establish that the victim would lead the way, however they did not follow safe protocol of skiing one person at a time.

Please note that distances were approximated.

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