View Full Version : Aspen Highlands Avy
03-06-2005, 06:34 PM
During an avalanche class none the less?
PITKIN COUNTY - An avalanche awareness class accidentally triggered an avalanche Sunday afternoon. One person was killed.
The Pitkin County Sheriff's Department says six people were involved in the slide on the backside of the Aspen Highlands Ski Area in an area known as Five Fingers Bowl. It is outside the Aspen Highlands Ski Area.
One person was critically injured and later died after attempts to resuscitate him. The rest of the group had minor or no injuries.
A member of Mountain Rescue Aspen was in the valley when the slide happened. She responded to the scene from below.
The man buried in the snow was dug out by the people who had been with him when the slide happened. He had critical injuries. They tried to stabilize him but he died before he could be transported to a hospital.
Those present when the avalanche happened are being interviewed.
Aspen Highlands Ski Area is northwest of Aspen Mountain
03-06-2005, 07:17 PM
03-06-2005, 07:53 PM
Horrible news. I hope this does not adversely effect other similar courses throughout the country.
03-07-2005, 09:56 AM
A man taking part in an avalanche education class was killed in a large slide Sunday afternoon in the Aspen Highlands backcountry.
The victim, whose name, age and hometown were not released, was with five other skiers in a course led by Aspen Expeditions, a local guide service. Amos Whiting, a highly experienced and trained guide, was apparently the leader of the Level II, or advanced, class.
The slide occurred beyond the Highlands ski area boundary in an area known as Five Fingers Bowl. A skier on top of Highland Peak reported it at 2:45 p.m. The soft-slab avalanche swept the victim between 3,500 and 4,000 feet down a gully and buried him in heavy debris just above Conundrum Creek on the valley floor.
The man, who also suffered critical injuries during the slide, was buried for about 20 minutes. When members of his party located him with avalanche transceivers and dug him out, he had a pulse but was not breathing. Members of the party and rescuers performed CPR on him for nearly an hour. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 4:42 p.m. Members of Mountain Rescue Aspen helped remove the body yesterday evening. An autopsy has been scheduled.
Colorado Springs resident Drew Gibson was a member of the party.
The avalanche ran nearly 4,000 vertical feet almost to the floor of the Conundrum Creek Valley. It broke at upper right, ending in a massive debris field at left. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
Click to Enlarge
Contacted at the Conundrum Creek trailhead, he said the group had dropped into the gully and was skiing its left side when the slope cut loose. It caught the victim in the center of the gully, then it rushed past Gibson and the other four members, who were out of its path on the left-hand shoulder. The victim was the only one caught.
Gibson said he didn't know how far down the party was from the ridge when the slide triggered. But they weren't that far from the top.
"I worked as a patroller at Copper for three years and I've never been that close to a slide before," he said, shaking his head.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had rated the avalanche danger for the Aspen area as moderate near and above treeline yesterday.
The slide was approximately 3 feet deep at its crown, according to a Highlands ski patroller who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity. It was about 150 to 225 feet wide at the top.
It broke off near the top of the Highlands ridge on a north-northeast-facing slope. The nearest landmark is the summit known as Five Fingers Peak or The Thumb, at about 12,000 feet.
It was rated as a Class III slide on a rising scale of five.
"A big avalanche," the patroller said.
The massive debris field was littered with broken trees and was colored brown in spots, a shade apparently gathered as the slide ripped clear to bare ground in places.
The slide marks at least the fourth avalanche in the last week in the backcountry off the ridge at Highlands, the patroller confirmed.
Greg Hensley, a filmmaker from Basalt, witnessed the avalanche from the top of Highland Peak and reported it to patrol.
“It cracked once, then it drew another batch down from the top. It was like a two-fold avalanche,” he said. “We had been watching [the party], but you could hardly see them except when they were skiing. Then they dropped out of sight and then came the avalanche — it just took that bowl and started dissolving the snowpack.
“It was scary witnessing it, knowing — holy cow! — those folks were right there.”
Two members of Mountain Rescue Aspen observed the slide while driving down Castle Creek Road. One member, who asked to remain anonymous, said she “always” looks up at Five Fingers when she drives past. They pulled over when she saw the debris. And after seeing movement in the debris field, they drove as far as they could up Conundrum Creek Road. Then they skinned to the scene and were the first rescue members to arrive.
Rescuers initially requested a helicopter to airlift the victim, who broke both his legs and suffered severe head trauma.
Highlands patrol director Mac Smith said the party was one of at least four Sunday to exit the ski area in search of backcountry powder off the Highlands ridge.
“For as many people who have gone out into Maroon Bowl and other places like that, this seems to be kind of inevitable at some point,” said Smith, who has been patrolling Highlands since the 1970s.
Dick Jackson, owner/guide of Aspen Expeditions, also since the ‘70s, and Whiting, the guide, could not be reached for comment.
At least 46 people have been caught in avalanches in the state this season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The only other reported avalanche death this season was in January, when a backcountry skier from Steamboat Springs was buried on Buffalo Pass.
03-08-2005, 12:23 AM
Here's the map pulled from the CAIC website:
03-08-2005, 08:34 AM
The latest info:
Man died of asphyxiation, coroner says
By Thomas Watkins/Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
John Williams Jensen, the man killed in Sunday's avalanche, died from asphyxiation, the Pitkin County Coroner's Office said Monday.
Jensen, 32, had recently lived and worked in New Mexico and California, according to Pitkin County Coroner Dr. Steven Ayers. His parents live in California and he has an aunt and uncle in Denver. Jensen was unmarried and had no children, Ayers said.
Aside from asphyxiating, Ayers said there was little additional trauma. Jensen had been skiing in a group of six as part of an avalanche awareness course in an out-of-bounds area known as Five Fingers Bowl, located in the backcountry of Aspen Highlands.
Jensen was dug out from the avalanche debris and found to still have a pulse, but resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful.
"There was initially a pulse but they lost that after several minutes," said Ayers, noting that CPR was attempted for about an hour before Jensen was declared dead.
"He never showed any signs of regaining consciousness," Ayers said.
Ayers added that he had expected to find broken limbs or damaged extremities, but there were no such injuries. Ayers could not ascertain if Jensen had been knocked unconscious in the avalanche or not.
"Most who are in avalanches are awake for 30 seconds or so, usually not much more than that," said Ayers.
No other skiers were injured in the avalanche.
The slide appears to have been triggered by a skier, said Pitkin County sheriff's deputy Ann Stephenson. A statement by one witness to the slide suggests that two skiers had traversed across the top of the main Five Fingers gully ahead of Jensen, she said.
"(Jensen) took a sweeping right turn and that's when the avalanche started," said Stephenson.
She noted that it is not known for certain how the avalanche started as snow broke away both above and below Jensen, "but it's fair to say it was skier started."
The slide was estimated at 3,500 vertical feet long and between 100 and 200 yards wide. It swept down a central gully, exposing bare rock and muddy spots.
Jensen was participating in an avalanche awareness course organized by Aspen Expeditions, a local backcountry adventure firm. The company's founder, Dick Jackson, spent much of yesterday conducting an investigation in the area and could not be reached for comment.
A short statement made available at his store reads: "Aspen Expeditions is continuing to investigate the circumstances of this tragic incident. We understand that efforts are being made to contact family members and our heartfelt sympathies go out to them."
Sunday's group was apparently led by Amos Whiting, Aspen Expeditions' lead winter guide. According to the company's Web site, he is a highly experienced guide with advanced certifications in avalanche awareness and rock climbing. Whiting could not be reached for comment.
The U.S. Forest Service's Winter Sports Administrator Jim Stark said the incident was particularly tragic considering the group was up on the mountain to learn about the risks of avalanches.
"It struck me as being ironic and sad," he said. "Instead of some young kid that's just totally blowing off safety, you get something like this. It's just really disheartening."
Stark said the avalanche danger had been posted as moderate over the weekend, an evaluation that was unchanged Monday. But trying to label all of Aspen's mountains with one rating can be difficult.
"The trouble with our area is we give out these general conditions, but they can change so much," said Stark. "People may dig a snow pit in one area and think it's pretty good, but there are too many variables between one slope and another. If they hit that sweet spot, you just can't beat Mother Nature. There are too many unknowns."
Sunday's slide is the latest in a series of avalanches in the area. Stark said there have been five skier-triggered slides in the last week or so, including one in Maroon Bowl.
It is the first local fatality, although there has been one other avalanche-related death in Colorado this winter - a man was killed in January in Steamboat Springs.
"I keep tracks on what's going on, but these are just very general forecasts, and hopefully people aren't hanging their hat on them too much," added Stark, who compiles daily reports using information from a combination of local and state sources. "They are more of a way to spread the word if a bunch of triggered releases have happened or there are aspects sliding more."
Mountain Rescue Aspen President Hugh Zuker declined to comment on the specifics of Sunday's avalanche, but said it showed there is always an element of risk in the backcountry.
"There's no such thing as safe backcountry travel, it's just a question of risk management," he said. "You have to look at it in terms of the decision-making process as much as the snowpack and terrain. Even if you dig pits and read all the warnings, at best it's an educated guess."
Stark added that when the risk of avalanches is given a lower rating there tends to be more accidents.
"It opens up that decision space more," he said. "You are not seeing any natural slides and typically people think it is OK."
A moderate rating means natural avalanches are unlikely, while human triggered slides are possible.
Spencer Logan, an avalanche and mountain weather forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said there have been some 730 avalanches reported so far this winter in the central mountains area, which includes Aspen, Crested Butte and the Sawatch Range.
"But we figure we maybe count only a tenth of actual avalanches," said Logan. "There's plenty of stuff that happens that nobody sees."
Logan added that recent warm weather might have heightened the risk of avalanches.
"The snowpack doesn't like rapid changes," he said. "The warming and softening of the snow could be a problem and we'll start seeing some avalanches in the afternoons. We are dealing with a winter snowpack in spring-like (weather) conditions."
Unseasonably warm weather hit the snowpack hard in March 2004. Logan said he hopes the area doesn't have the same conditions this year and according to some long-range forecasts, the weather may become more wintry next week.
"But anything specific after 48 hours is voodoo and wishful thinking," he said.
He added: "Conditions are going to remain interesting for quite a while. Some slopes will be safe, but go across the gully the snowpack could be quite different."
03-09-2005, 05:17 PM
Just prior to 3 p.m., the decision was made to begin the ski descent down the central rib directly below the Thumb. It was also agreed upon by the group that participants would ski one at a time from one “safe island” to another, following the tracks and stopping above and adjacent to the guide. The assistant instructor led the first few pitches, connecting several turns from one bench on the rib to another, always skiing down the crest of the rib itself.
The lead guide then took the lead and continued the descent, carefully testing the slope with just a single turn down the fall-line and then a strong traverse cut back right to the crest of the rib. Once the lead guide stopped, he signaled for the first participant to follow. As this second skier followed the guide’s track, the assistant guide instructed the group to ski conservatively, stay on the crest of the rib and stay very close to the lead guide’s track.
Again the guide called for the next skier to come down and at that point John [Jensen] began to ski. John was skiing on telemark equipment and while he could have skied closer to the rib crest, he began making wider turns that traversed the northeast flank of the rib toward the gully more than the other skiers had. He remained in the fall line off of the rib, placing him on steeper, more exposed terrain moving further left of the guide’s tracks. After about five turns he lost control and shifted his weight onto the back of his skis. This put him off balance while turning to the right and caused him to fall downhill hard onto the slope.
Upon impact he rolled over to correct his stance, but the slope collapsed uphill of him. He appeared to attempt to “swim” with the moving snow, but then the fracture propagated up the gully dramatically and John disappeared over a convexity with the slide.
taken from this article (http://aspentimes.com/article/20050309/NEWS/50309003). these are accident investigation accounts from the guide service and others there.
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