No accident occurred, no one was caught but a bit of an incident ensued and there are some important lessons to be learned by all. One of the skiers involved has posted a summary of events along with a sincere apology on the Teton Gravity forum (http://www.tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=28239). Reported below is what we have heard from rescuers.
On Wednesday afternoon a group of 3 skiers remotely triggered a large and long-running avalanche in the "Y" chute, one of several prominent avalanche paths on the backside of Peak 6 in the Tenmile Range. This slide ran nearly to the valley floor. There was considerable confusion about this avalanche and it seems the skiers likely never knew they had triggered the slide as they traversed well above treeline. The skiers continued their descending traverse to the "K" chute where they triggered a second avalanche. The skiers called the Copper Mountain Ski Patrol to report they had triggered a "big" slide, no one was caught, all were okay, and that they had a good route out. Confusion arose because the patrol could see 2 slides, and the "big" slide (in the Y chute) was much bigger than the K slide. The Copper Patrol could clearly see the 3 tracks entering the smaller slide but could see no tracks exiting, but the skiers had mentioned a big slide. The Summit County Sheriff's Office was notified and initiated a search and rescue operation.
With ski tracks in but no tracks out, rescuers from the Breckenridge and Copper ski patrols, Flight for Life, Summit County Rescue Group, and Summit County Sheriff's Office responded. Perhaps 20ish minutes after the first call the Copper Patrol received a second call from the skiers saying all were off the mountain, in their car, and headed down the highway. The caller refused to answer any questions, saying he wanted to remain anonymous and hung up. This was an unfortunate event, because a few extra minutes on the phone to answer truthfully where and how they had gotten out would have saved everyone involved a considerable amount of effort. Instead the caller falsely reported they were safe and out, and on their way to Frisco when they were actually still on the mountain and a long ways from the valley floor.
Confusion rose dramatically when some else reportedly called the Breckenridge Ski Patrol "confirming" 3 people were buried. Presented with conflicting information the rescuers had to confirm there were 3 tracks out of the avalanche. Ideally it would have been even better to confirm the skiers were off the mountain before the search could be called off. Even if the call to the Breckenridge had not occurred, the rescuers would still want to confirm tracks out. With no visible tracks in the valley floor the best way to check the avalanche would be from the air.
Flight for Life flew to the site with an avalanche specialist and avalanche rescue dog and handler from the Breckenridge Ski Patrol. From the air the crew onfirmed tracks in but could find no tracks out. Because of rugged terrain the helicopter could not land on the debris or even get close to the debris. Also because of significant avalanche danger rescuers could not immediately enter the area from above or from below.
By now the skiers had seen the helicopter and heard sirens, so they called back a third time to say they were out and okay, but they would not say where they were. The search effort continued because the rescuers didn't know where the skiers were, and couldn't find their tracks out of the avalanche or coming on into the valley floor.
Back in the valley a meeting was quickly called by rescuers to plan their response. Avalanche reduction work with explosives would be needed to make routes and the site safe for rescuers. This effort would take time. While plans were being made the helicopter flew back to the site with just the avalanche specialist for a closer look.
From the air came good news. Flying closer to the slope the helicopter crew spotted some faint tracks and then spotted the three skiers hiding in the trees. About this time came a fourth call, and the skiers admitted they were still on the mountain.
After awhile the three skiers finally made it to the valley floor and the awaiting throng of rescuers, sheriff deputies, and the media. The Summit Daily News reported this morning the trio were ticketed for violating the Colorado Skier Safety Act by ducking under a closure rope at the Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Unfortunately, events for the 3 skiers quickly got out of hand. As mentioned earlier a few extra minutes on the phone with a truthful appraisal of their situation would have resulted in a quiet and uneventful afternoon. They did the right thing when they called the patrol to say all was okay. We encourage folks to call authorities if they trigger an avalanche and think others might be watching, so an unnecessary rescue effort doesn't get started. (If there is any doubt rescuers will always respond.) If during the second call had the skiers said they were still working there way down and would call when they got out to the cars, that likely would have been the end of the story.
If one ever calls to report a slide and to say there is no need for rescue, make sure you call back to say not just that your out but also to add how you got out. Rescuers really like to be able to confirm that folks are indeed out and safe. In many cases someone will likely check for the tracks to confirm the story. When the story cannot be verified, a rescue will likely start. In this incident the tracks out could not be found, so the search continued.
In reading the first-person account, the trio's actions to continue down on to similar slopes after triggering an avalanche is interesting. What they did by continuing downhill was neither wrong or right; for them it worked. They got down safely, and it is probably what 99.99% of we gravity-loving skiers and riders would have done, but sometimes this action can lead right into the den of the avalanche dragon. Sometimes the better choice of action is to turn around and climb back uphill and return from where we came. Climbing back uphill also allows us to re-evaluate earlier decisions. We might decide to treat, or decide on a completely different route down, or on hot days we can wait until the snow refreezes. (If you decide to wait, wait at least an extra hour longer then you think to be necessary to allow for a better freeze and stronger snow.) Once we start downhill it is very difficult to change plans or routes. Gravity takes over and keeps pulling us down. If slopes become steeper or the snow wetter, the avalanche danger goes up. Despite increasing danger we usually continue downward bound because it seems easier to go with gravity than to work against it. However, sometimes it is safer to go against gravity.