At about 1100 hours Sunday morning two backcountry skiers were caught in a sizable hard slab avalanche in Herman Gulch, near Loveland Pass. One man was buried and seriously injured.
The red diamond shows the location of the Herman Gulch avalanche.
A party of 5 experienced backcountry skiers (4 men and 1 woman) equipped with transceivers and shovels followed Herman Creek trail northwest to the base of an avalanche path named Herman A. Leaving the trail at least one member of the group heard a "whumph" sound, but the others did not. They climbed the west side of "Herman A" by switch backing in and near the trees. They were climbing through over 3 feet of faceted sugar-like snow with various sun crusts.
The avalanche is highlighted in red; the path name is Herman A.
Once above the trees, rather than traveling in an organized, single track the party spread out. Two of the skiers were about 10 feet apart on a slightly lower-angled bench and were crossing the gully when the slab fractured above them. The avalanche, described as somewhat slow moving swept both skiers almost to the valley floor. When it stopped the woman was partly buried with just her head and one arm out of the snow. She was able to quickly dig herself out. She saw her friends pack about 50 feet away.
The other skier was buried with just his backpack and ski sticking out of the snow. She quickly dug out her friend who had been buried for 4-5 minutes. He was not breathing and was suffering from obvious injuries.
Herman A avalanche from February 15 (photograph taken 5 days after the accident). The avalanche appears to have been in several waves with the deepest debris the most visible in the center. The skiers were on or above a relatively flat area above the narrow neck. The two caught- skiers ended up on the upper right portion of the runout zone in an area of relatively shallow debris. (Photo: Dale Atkins)
In the meantime, the other 3 skiers descended to assist their friend. One started rescue breathing, and the victim responded and began breathing. One skied out to I-70 to notify rescuers.
The rescue was a coordinated effort by the Alpine Rescue Team, Clear Creek County Ambulance Service, the CCC Sheriff's Department, Flight for Life, and the Loveland Ski Areas Ski Patrol. Rescuers and paramedics from the ambulance, ski patrol, and Alpine were flown in as a part of Flight for Life's Avalanche Deployment program.
The victim was lowered short a distance across the rugged debris and carried to the helicopter.
At the time of the accident skies were partly cloudy, the temperature was 10F and winds were light from the west. A small storm on February 1-5 dropped 12 inches of snow on Loveland Pass, another 6 inches fell from the 6th to the 11th. Strong NW to N winds averaging 20-30+ m.p.h. on the 6th formed shallow soft and hard slabs about 2 feet deep and began a cycle of soft slabs, both natural and triggered, that continued until the 10th. After the 10th, activity dropped off significantly, but cold temperatures maintained surface instability so that the slab gained very little strength.
The hard-slab avalanche triggered by the skiers was classified as HS-AS-3-G. This medium-sized avalanche released about 2 feet deep and to the ground. Estimates have the avalanche at about 200 feet wide and falling 1300 vertical feet. The avalanche released from a south aspect at about 12400 feet.
We did not have a chance to speak with the members of the group in any sort of detail. They were experienced, well-equipped, knew the danger was rated considerable, and traveled a good route at least through the trees, but something or some things lured the group in lowering their guard the higher they climbed.
This season snowfall in the Loveland Pass areas has been sorely lacking resulting in a shallow and very weak snowcover on all aspects and elevations. Even southerly aspects have significant amounts of faceted, weak, depth hoar. These slopes might be even "more" dangerous because they also have layers of stout sun crusts that can support greater loads. When the snow does fracture the resulting avalanche can be larger than expected. Also with less snow than usual on the southerly aspects this season there are many more exposed obstacles like rocks, stumps, and logs.
Morris, Williams, and Atkins, Feb. 17, 2004