Avalanche victim killed after staying beneath steep slope for photos, according to report

On February 16, a fatal avalanche occurred near Rand, Colorado, involving a group of six snowmobilers. It buried two and killed one while running 350 feet downhill with enough force to snap trees and pile debris up to 10 feet deep. At a reported width of 3,500 feet, the avalanche was more than a half-mile wide.

According to the official report released by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the rider that was killed yelled out a warning to his friends before a cloud of snow from the avalanche hid him from view.

As described in the report, “things quickly ‘got dark’ as a powder cloud from the avalanche blocked out the daylight.”

The group of snowmobilers had departed from the town of Gould that morning. They were aware that dangerous avalanche conditions existed thanks to reports that they had seen on the media, though they had not looked up the official avalanche risk forecast. Due to the known risk, they planned to ride low-angle terrain and in meadows, avoiding steep slopes.

While the group was initially riding in a familiar area, they later entered a drainage they had not traveled in before. Eventually, they ended up in a “broad, flat basin” near Ruby Mountain in Jackson County. Though natural avalanches were observed on the peak, they did not believe this would impact them as they were planning to avoid risky terrain, staying in the meadow below.

At one point, one of the riders made his way up to a higher point roughly 200 feet above the meadow near where an approximate 30-degree slope angle was present – right around where avalanche risk can really start to increase (Terrain map included below). At this point, his snowmobile became stuck. With the help of the others, he was able to free the machine, but remained on the slope and off of his machine to take photos and enjoy the views.

Another rider made a pass through the area and the avalanche released. It was approximately 3 PM.

At this point, the group heard the rider that had been taking photos yell a warning as he ran to return to his snowmobile. That was the last time this rider was seen alive, as snow from the avalanche soon blocked him from view.

Another rider – not the rider that made the last pass through the area – also became caught and was buried up to his legs on his machine. He was able to free himself from the snow without assistance after the avalanche stopped.

When the snow settled, the first rider to be caught was nowhere to be seen. Unable to find cell phone reception, two of the riders left the scene to contact emergency services from their cabin in Gould.

The other three riders stayed behind to search for the missing rider with a single probe at his last known location, though they were ultimately unsuccessful.

The group was eventually able to notify search and rescue roughly half an hour after the slide occurred. Search and rescued helped the group probe until 8 PM when the search put on pause with a plan to continue the next day.

On the following day, members of the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Jackson and Grand Counties Search and Rescue, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center joined together in a continuation of the search along with two Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment dog teams from Winter Park Ski Patrol.

The dogs were deployed at about 11:19 AM and three minutes later, one of the dogs had found the body of the missing rider beneath the debris. After a successful probe strike, search and rescue was able to dig the body out from debris that was two feet deep.

The cause of death was later determined to be asphyxiation.

Photo Courtesy, CAIC. Map Credit: @2021 Google Earth.

A Google Earth image of the accident site, shaded by slope angle. The blue circle indicates Rider 1’s last seen location and likely trigger point. The red X indicates the location where Rider 1 was buried. The green triangle indicates the approximate location of Rider 2 where he was partially buried. Slope angle is shaded with Caltopo fixed bins: 27 to 29 degrees in yellow, 30 to 32 degrees in orange, 32 to 34 degrees in light red, 35 to 45 degrees in dark red, 46 to 50 degrees in purple (Caption from Colorado Avalanche Information Center). Photo Courtesy, CAIC. Map Credit: @2021 Google Earth.

Commentary from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center points to a couple aspects of this incident that led to higher risk.

First, only three of the riders were utilizing avalanche transceivers and the person that was killed was not. An avalanche transceiver is a device that allows one to find someone or be found beneath the snow. The group also lacked an adequate number of probes, forced to share a single probe during their initial search for the missing rider.

The second thing pointed out by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report is how the group was riding below steeper terrain. This is dangerous because movement below steep terrain can trigger a slide from above, even if that movement is on a flat area or low-angle slope. Avoid terrain that is below a steep slope or in a potential avalanche run-off area.

Condolences go out to all of those impacted by this accident and other fatal accidents that have occurred during this dangerous snow season.

If entering the backcountry, it’s crucial that all members of the group carry and know how to use all recommended safety gear, including a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel. It’s also crucial to know what the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s risk forecast says and to avoid backcountry travel if recommended.

In total, 11 people have been killed by avalanches in Colorado so far this snow season, including eight skiers, two snowmobilers, and one snowboarder. This compares to six total avalanche-related deaths last season and eight the season before that.

Read the full report about this incident published by Brian Lazar and Jason Konigsberg on the CAIC website.

Editor’s Note: Much of Colorado’s search and rescue effort is volunteer-based. If you’re interested in supporting this effort, consider purchasing a CORSAR card.

Editor’s Note: Here’s an article about why we’ve chosen to cover deaths and injuries that occur in Colorado’s outdoor recreation space.

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