At about 1230 hours Thursday afternoon two teenage hikers were caught in a hard slab avalanche on the east side of Kelso Mountain, a little over 3 miles south of Bakerville and about 1 mile east of the summit of Torreys Peak. One young man, an 18-year-old from Colorado Springs, was buried and killed.
The red "X" marks the general location of the December 22, 2005 avalanche.
The East ridge -- aka Kelso Ridge -- is the jagged ridge running from the summit of Torreys Peak to the left-hand side of the photograph. (Dale Atkins, 12/24/2005)
On Wednesday the two teenagers (ages 18 and 17) had set out from Bakerville with aspirations to climb the Kelso Ridge (aka East Ridge) of Torreys Peak. The pair snowshoed up Stevens Gulch following the summer trail to the start of the route. The pair camped Wednesday night near the bottom of the climb. Strong winds racked the mountains and caused heavy blowing snow by Thursday morning the winds only grew stronger. With ferocious weather the boys reconsidered their plans and opted for retreat. The pair packed up and started back down the summer trail.
Very strong winds made walking difficult and heavy blowing snow obscured visibility. As the two traversed below the broad east side of Kelso Mountain the boys were slammed by a wall of moving snow.
Carried only a short distance and near the edge of the slide the 17-year-old found himself partly buried. His friend was gone. The boy wiggled himself free and left his pack as a marker. Seeing no clues of his friend and since neither were equipped with avalanche rescue transceivers or probes he hurried off to get help. Some where along the trail he used his cell phone to call to 911.
The December 22, 2005 avalanche released 750 feet across. The victims were caught near the north edge of the slide.
Though very broad, this combination soft slab and hard slab avalanche was classified as medium-sized relative to the avalanche path (HS/SS-AF-R3D3-O). The avalanche fractured 750 feet across the east-facing slope, but only released about 2 feet deep. The weak layer was a 3-4-inch thick layer of small, loose, faceted grains. The avalanche ran at least 460 vertical feet with the north end spreading across the summer trail. Along the summer trail the slope was very shallow but steepened to 37 degrees. Because of the weather conditions, it is very reasonable that this avalanche was a natural release.
The boys had been following the summer trail when the avalanche likely released from above. The avalanche released from old snow. The bare ground in the center of the photograph is a slightly raised rib that likely was bare or barely covered. The avalanche fracture propagated upslope of this feature and into the snow on the looker's left side of the photograph. A bit of moving snow did slide down across this bare ground. (Dale Atkins, 12/24/2005)
Looking down from near the top of the avalanche. The boys were traveling from the right side of the photo to the left side of the photo when the avalanche struck. Both boys ended up just beyond the deepest and roughest-looking debris on the right side of the photo. Though traveling only a few feet between each other, the survivor was swept to the bottom while his friend was basically pushed over and buried deeply. (Dale Atkins 12/24/2005)
This photo shows the slab and weak layers just above the fracture line (that was buried by drifting snow). The top slab was one-finger hard. Below was a 4-finger weak layer of small faceted -- sugar snow -- grains. Below this layer was another firm layer -- 1-finger-- of wind-drifted snow. Below was another weak layer of faceted grains. The rest of the snow cover of strong, hard, consolidated snow to the ground.
The avalanche likely fractured on the upper-weak layer as this was consistently the weakest layer in stability tests -- compression tests ranging from 7 to 12 with quality 1 and 2 shears -- in the starting zone). The slope angle is 37 degrees in steepness. (Dale Atkins 12/24/2005)
At a few minutes after 1300 hours the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Department notified Alpine Rescue Team which mobilized a response. Through the sheriff's department Alpine requested the Flight For Life's Avalanche Deployment, and the FFL helicopter from Summit County responded with a Breckenridge Ski Patrol avalanche specialist and an avalanche rescue dog and handler. Weather conditions prevented landing near the accident site so the helicopter set down in Bakerville. The ski patrollers and Alpine Rescue Team members used snowmobiles to access the site. Above treeline the conditions and deep snow made for slow going.
Some time after 1500 the Breckenridge Ski Patrol dog arrived on scene and quickly alerted on a spot in the debris. Probing was inconclusive so searchers started digging. At times the wind gusts were so strong that several rescuers were knocked over by the winds. A bit later the dog alerted a few feet over and probing confirmed the victim's location.
The victim as recovered from under 5-6 feet of snow. He had been buried for about 3 hours and 10 minutes. Rescuers recovered the teenager's body and returned back to Bakerville.
Morris and Atkins, 12/22 at 1745. Updated on 12/28.