Date & Time: March 18, 2002; 2:00 pm
Location: Maroon Bowl, an off-area bowl at Aspen Highlands. The bowl drains into Maroon Creek.
Elevation: 11,600 feet
Aspect: West to Northwest to North
On Monday afternoon at Aspen Highlands Ski Area a group of three snowboarders and one skier, all in their early to mid 20s headed out through a Forest Service Backcountry Access Gate, The young men all Aspen locals were headed toward Maroon Bowl. At the gate they were approached by a former avalanche technician/ski patroller whom warned the group that they would likely trigger an avalanche and with that avalanche came a real possibility of death. The group kept going and descended toward "Jump Rock" located low in the starting zone.
Photograph courtesy of TheAspen Times
Two of the men jumped off the rock without incident. The third man off the rock triggered the avalanche when he landed. The fractures were not instantaneous; they propagated up and across the slope, almost in slow motion (relatively speaking). The three men took off down and across the slope, headed toward the south-facing terrain on the other side of the path. Instead of the entire slab shattering like a pane of glass, the fractures started on the skier's left side of the bowl and worked its way around the bowl, like a row of falling dominos. The pursuing avalanche nipped closely at the heels of the fleeing riders. A Hollywood movie might depict a similar action scene by having a bridge crumble at the heels of the hero as he races across. One of the men in an Aspen Times interview stated "I heard it coming and I took off and didn't look back." The trio reached some trees on the south-facing side of the gully where fortunately the snow did not avalanche. The torrent of snow swept within about 20 feet of the group. After the avalanche the fourth man was gone, but fortunately he soon answered his friends' yells. He had been swept off the rock and into some trees. He was okay. The men descended the rest of the way down.
Witnesses at the ski area fearing the worst, alerted the ski patrol who in turn notified the sheriff's department and Aspen Mountain Rescue. After a few minutes four tracks were spotted leaving the avalanche and rescuers knew the men had escaped.
The avalanche the men triggered was classified as SS-AD-4-O. This was a very large soft slab avalanche, up to 1000 feet across with a fracture line depth of 4 feet. It released on an old snow layer. This avalanche fell about 3,200 vertical feet and stopped near the edge of Maroon Creek.
This accident and another accident a few days earlier outside of Ashcroft contrast sharply, highlighting the uncertainty and luck that can occur in avalanche accidents. In the accident outside Ashcroft an experienced group trying to do all the right things was unlucky. In Maroon Bowl this group apparently ignored the clues and advice and dodged a monstrous avalanche unscathed.
We have not yet spoken to the men involved (and hope to, soon), but they made some interesting comments that might give some insight to why they did what they did. It sounds that they were well prepared with avalanche beacons, shovels, and probes. Even one man had recently taken an avalanche course, and all were aware of the recent accidents. Was it youth that got them into trouble? Maybe and maybe not. Don't pass judgment and summarily dismiss their indiscretion to youth, they made three key mistakes that are common in many avalanche accidents that involve people whom have at least some level of avalanche awareness training. They made an error in judgment caused by attitude and overconfidence. And while they may have known that the avalanche threat was considerable, they could not judge their risk.
When confronted at the gate and told about the danger and the risk they faced, they chose to continue. Perhaps this was arrogance or even an anti-authority behavior on their part, but it is well known that no one, at any age likes to be told what to do. Maybe they were confident they could avoid trouble, or if in trouble they could get themselves out. This confidence is common in accidents of all types. Even if you have the rescue gear and know how to use, you must still travel as if you left your gear at home.
Their confidence--mistake two--was enhanced by an earlier experience. Earlier in the day the four had already descended Highland Peak to Castle Creek. They rode a south-facing gully (off area) right off the summit of Highland Peak. Back to the Castle Creek road and a parked car they headed back to the ski area to tackle the other side of Highland Peak. Their confidence was likely buttressed by the fact that they rode Highland Peak once without problems; therefore, they could do it again. Though it was the same mountain, a different route means very different conditions.
Their third mistake, again one common in many accidents, was their failure to perceive their own risk, or what the consequences of an avalanche would mean. This also can relate directly to overconfidence and attitude. If they found trouble, they had the gear and knowledge to solve the problem. I suspect they knew the avalanche danger was significant. (We rated the danger at CONSIDERABLE.) Not only were they told, but also in The Aspen Times article one man explained the reason why they hadn't dug any pits was "We knew what we were going to find if we dug a pit." This infers they knew they were venturing into the den of an avalanche dragon.
It is common in avalanche hazards (as well as other hazards) for victims to recognize the avalanche threat or potential, but for some reason individuals fail to realize their own risk. A Utah study done in the late 1980s found that individual backcountry skiers thought someone else was two times more likely to get caught and killed in an avalanche than themselves. It's the old it can't happen to me belief. It can happen and surviving an avalanche is luck. People who know Maroon Bowl and/or saw the avalanche say that one would needed more then luck to survive such an avalanche. These men boldly entered the avalanche dragon's den and nearly missed getting burned and consumed. We hope their close call was a good lesson learned.
One last thing to mention, in The Aspen Times article one man attributed their mistake to the time of day and the temperature. He stated "...we shouldn't have gone so late. It warmed up, then it released." It seems he missed the obvious and more important clues to avalanche danger. Though temperature can affect snow stability; in this case temperature (and time of day implying warmer afternoon temperatures) would be at the very bottom of the list contributory factors. Though I wrote about the possible contribution of temperature in the accident at Crystal Peak, one must keep in mind that snow is a lousy thermal conductor. Temperatures on Monday were relatively cold and the slope in Maroon Bowl that initially fractured faces north. The effect of temperature on this slope would be minimal at most, and even solar insolation would be slight compared to the solar radiation received on the southerly-facing slopes -- that didn't slide. In this Maroon Bowl avalanche -- like I wrote regarding the Crystal Peak accident -- there were other more important and obvious factors that contributed to the instability: a fresh slab, a steep slope, and a weak layer of faceted snow. The only missing ingredient for an avalanche was a trigger. Had they gone earlier or later the result might have been the same, or even worse.
They made some errors in judgment that could be attributed to inexperience. Maybe it was a function of their ages, but many victims -- and much older victims -- have made the same mistakes. Gaining experience to make good judgments is a tricky thing. "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment."
Atkins, March 20, 2002