CAIC: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

2013/12/27 - Colorado - North side Loveland Pass

Published 2014/01/17 by Scott Toepher - Forecaster, CAIC


Avalanche Details

  • Location: North side Loveland Pass
  • State: Colorado
  • Date: 2013/12/27
  • Time: 2:00 PM
  • Summary Description: 1 sidecountry skier caught, partially buried-critical
  • Primary Activity: Sidecountry Rider
  • Primary Travel Mode: Ski
  • Location Setting: Accessed BC from Ski Area

Number

  • Caught: 1
  • Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 0
  • Partially Buried, Critical: 1
  • Fully Buried: 0
  • Injured: 1
  • Killed: 0

Avalanche

  • Type: HS
  • Trigger: AS - Skier
  • Trigger (subcode): u - An unintentional release
  • Size - Relative to Path: R2
  • Size - Destructive Force: D2
  • Sliding Surface: O - Within Old Snow

Site

  • Slope Aspect: E
  • Site Elevation: 11800 ft
  • Slope Angle: 35 °
  • Slope Characteristic: Convex Slope

Avalanche Comments

A skier triggered a hard-slab avalanche on a buried layer of faceted snow grains. The avalanche was small relative to the path, but big enough to bury or injure a person. It broke on a persistent weak layer near the ground, one to two feet below the snow surface, and was about 100 feet wide. It started on a convex portion of an east-facing slope near 11,600 ft and ran about 300 vertical feet.

Weather Summary

Arapahoe Basin reported 4" of snow on Christmas Day. There was no new snow reported on either December 26th or 27th. Westerly winds were strong on December 25 and 26, but had decreased by the 27th. On the day of the accident, skies were clear. Temperatures were in the upper 20s F, warmer than the previous several days. 

Snowpack Summary

Snowfall in October and November developed into faceted snow grains and depth hoar. Regular storm cycles on a general northwest flow pattern brought new snow and moderate to strong winds to the Loveland Pass area through December. This pattern formed multiple hard slabs separated by layers of faceted snow.

Events Leading to the Avalanche

A skier (Skier 1) exited the Loveland Basin ski area through a backcountry access gate at 13:30. Skier 1 was using telemark equipment, traveling alone, and did not have an avalanche transceiver, shovel, or probe. Skier 1 hiked east along the ridge to a saddle near 11,800 ft. Skier 1 was familiar with the area. Skier 1 descended low angle terrain off the ridge, avoiding cornices and steep slopes. Part way down, Skier 1 traversed along a convex roll above steeper terrain and began to descend a less-steep slope. Within 10 feet, Skier 1 saw a crack open about five feet uphill of his position.

Accident Summary

Skier 1 felt the snow collapse and drop, but only heard a gentle 'whoosh'. Skier 1 decided to head straight down the steeper slope they had planned to avoid in the hopes of outrunning the avalanche. The slab broke into “undulating blocks of different sizes going up and down at random like the keys on a player piano”. Skier 1 rode on top of the slab for about 100 feet down slope. Then the avalanche hit a bench at the bottom of the path and Skier 1 could feel debris rapidly start piling up, first covering his legs, then chest, then head. Skier 1 tried to swim up in debris, but his skis were still attached. At the last second Skier 1 put his left hand in front of his face to create an air pocket. Skier 1 felt this entire event lasted about 20 seconds.

Skier 1 was partially buried-critical, with his airway under the snow but equipment visible on the surface. A portion of Skier 1’s left ski pole was above the debris. Skier 1 was buried in a sitting position, with his head about 3 feet below the debris. His left arm was level with his head, and his right arm was at his side with the right pole underneath their body. His legs were crossed with both skis still attached. Skier 1 felt he was fully conscious for a couple minutes and then went into “mental hibernation.”

Rescue Summary

At some point Skier 1 could hear someone yelling, and then felt someone was digging and shouting  above him. 

Two backcountry skiers on the ridge witnessed the avalanche and called 911, which began a response by Flight for Life Helicopters.

A  backcountry tourer on a splitboard (Snowboarder 1) also saw the avalanche and headed over to do a search. Snowboarder 1 began a beacon search but could find no signal. He then visually followed Skier 1's track from the crown down slope along the estimated trajectory. Snowboarder 1 saw a black ski pole tip, sticking about a foot out of the snow. Snowboarder 1 began to dig an estimated 10 minutes after the avalanche occurred. He dug down the ski pole and saw a hand, and continued digging until he reached Skier 1's head. Skier 1 was semi-conscious at this point and began to respond little by little. It took Snowboarder 1 about 30 minutes to excavate Skier 1. Skier 1 was able to ski to the highway on his own.

Comments

Several factors helped this incident have a happy conclusion. Skier 1 was able to make a small air pocket in front of his face. That may have helped his survival. Snowboarder 1 witnessed the avalanche, and was able to reach the avalanche and spot the visual clue quickly.

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