- Location: Telescope Mountain, northeast of Rico
- State: Colorado
- Date: 2020/03/31
- Summary Description: 1 backcountry tourer caught and injured
- Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
- Primary Travel Mode: Ski
- Location Setting: Backcountry
- Caught: 1
- Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 0
- Partially Buried, Critical: 0
- Fully Buried: 0
- Injured: 1
- Killed: 0
- Type: SS
- Trigger: AS - Skier
- Trigger (subcode): u - An unintentional release
- Size - Relative to Path: R3
- Size - Destructive Force: D2
- Sliding Surface: O - Within Old Snow
- Slope Aspect: NE
- Site Elevation: 11500 ft
- Slope Angle: 34 °
- Slope Characteristic: Sparse Trees
This was a soft slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by a backcountry skier. The avalanche was medium-sized relative to path, large enough to bury, injure or kill a person, and broke on a layer of faceted snow 28 to 34 inches deep (about 70 to 80 cm) (SS-ASu-R3D2-O). This was a persistent slab avalanche.
The avalanche released below treeline on a sparsely-treed, north northeast-facing slope around 40 degrees in steepness. The backcountry riders described the avalanche as “large moving blocks of snow”. The slide ran about 650 vertical feet before coming to rest on a bench. Avalanche debris piled up to 10 to 12 feet deep (about 3 to 3.5 m).
Backcountry Avalanche Forecast
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) backcountry avalanche forecast for the North San Juan zone on March 31 rated the avalanche danger as Moderate (level 2 of 5) at all elevations. Persistent Slab avalanches were listed as the primary avalanche problem type, and highlighted on west, northwest, north, northeast and east aspects. The likelihood of triggering was possible and the potential size was large to very large. Loose Wet avalanches were listed as the secondary avalanche problem type, and highlighted on east, southeast, south, southwest, and west aspects. The likelihood of triggering was likely and the potential size was small to large. The CAIC summary for the North San Juan Zone read:
When the sun hits the fresh low-density snow, we’ll see a round of loose-wet slides on slopes steeper than 35 degrees. They’ll start first on east-facing slopes then move south around the compass. By late in the day warmer temps could help west facing slopes produce larger slides. New snow rests on crusts in some places providing a slick sliding surface and slides may travel farther than normal.
Weak layers buried two to three feet deep on northwest through northeast to east-facing slopes have also been stressed by the additional load keeping heightened concerns on the north side of the compass. These slides may be stubborn but if you manage to find the “not so sweet” spot, avalanches could break two to three feet deep leading to a dangerous ride. Avoid likely trigger spots like thinner areas on the margins of the slab and near shallow exposed rocks. Practice safe protocol and only expose one person at a time and get well out of the way at the bottom of each run. Cornices have also been given a new load so be diligent about staying well away from the edge as these things have a nasty tendency to break farther back than you expect. Safer riding can be found on lower-angle slopes out of the sun not connected to steeper terrain.
The Telescope Mountain area experienced unsettled weather and intermittent snow showers in the weeks prior to the accident. The most significant storm system, on March 18 to 20 deposited an estimated 10-15 inches of snow and 1.0 - 1.5 inches snow water equivalent (SWE). The remainder of March saw intermittent light snowfall.
The weather on the day of the accident was sunny and warm, with light winds above treeline. The temperature at the CAIC Rico weather station (8,931 feet and 3 miles southwest of the accident site) reached 40 degrees Farenheit at 11:00 AM after an overnight low of 17 degrees.
Snowfall over the final six weeks of 2019 produced a relatively strong and deep snowpack by the beginning of 2020. Strong winds throughout January re-shaped the upper snowpack, drifting snow into thick, dense layers in some areas and scouring others. Faceted snow grains formed in the upper snowpack during frequent cool, dry periods throughout February.
Small storms through mid-March buried the old, weak snow surface and increased slab depth, but did not overload weaker snow below. In the twelve days prior to the accident, abundant snowfall buried weak layers three to four feet deep. Winds drifted additional snow onto north-facing slopes and the CAIC observed a significant increase in avalanche activity. The CAIC documented 44 natural and human-triggered avalanches in the North San Juan zone between March 19 and 30. Eight avalanches occurred below treeline on northwest through northeast-facing slopes.
Events Leading to the Avalanche
Three backcountry riders (Riders 1 through 3) met in the morning on Colorado Highway 145 at McJunkin Creek, northeast of the town of Rico. Riders 2 and 3 had toured in the area the day before. The three initially followed the previous day’s track up McJunkin Creek before turning south and climbing to a flat bench at 10,850 feet. Their initial plan was to descend from this point. Since they were all unfamiliar with the McJunkin drainage, they decided to keep “exploring” and gain the ridge of Telescope Mountain.
Rider 1 set a skin track bearing east, climbing towards the ridge. The slope steepened as they climbed into more sparse forest. The group agreed to spread out, staying around 100 feet apart. Riders 1 and 2 continued climbing across the slope then switchbacked and climbed toward the western edge of the sparse trees. Rider 3 decided to avoid the more open slope. He set his own track, climbing through adjacent, more heavily forested terrain before rejoining the other’s track. The group continued climbing eastward, with Rider 1 100 to 200 feet ahead of Riders 2 and 3.
Around 11:00 AM, Rider 1 felt and heard a large collapse in the snowpack. He looked uphill to see the avalanche breaking 15 to 20 feet above him. Rider 1 turned his skis down the fall line and began moving with the slab. Rider 1 maintained his balance for around 100 feet before a large crack in the snow surface opened in front of him. He tried to jump the crack but fell. He fought to stay on top of the moving snow and steer away from obstacles. When the avalanche stopped, Rider 1’s upper leg was injured from hitting a tree but he was not buried.He stood up, worried his friends were caught. He took about ten steps before the pain became unbearable.
Riders 2 and 3 were not caught in the avalanche. They watched their friend until he was swept into a stand of trees. The three made contact on their 2-way radios.
Concerned about additional avalanches, Riders 2 and 3 slowly and carefully descended through the dense trees along the west edge of the avalanche. They cautiously moved out onto the debris to reach Rider 1. Rider 3 picked up Rider 1 and moved him dowhill of a large stand of trees. They discussed options and decided Rider 3 would go to Rico and call for help. They bundled Rider 1 in jackets and dug a platform and wind break. Rider 2 monitored and supported Rider 1’s leg for the next three to four hours.
Rider 3 arrived at the Rico fire station around 11:45 AM and called 911. Dolores County Search and Rescue was dispatched. Around the same time, Rider 2 made contact over his 2-way radio with a seperate group of backcountry tourers on top of Palmyra Peak, about 15 miles northeast near the town of Telluride. The second group notified the San Miguel County Sheriff's office. Around 10 to 15 members of the San Miguel County SAR team were dispatched to assist Dolores County SAR. A Flight for Life helicopter shuttled rescuers to the ridgeline above Rider 1. Rescuers reached Rider 1 and transported him to a meadow lower on the slope. The Flight for Life helicopter landed in the meadow, and then flew Rider 1 to a hospital in Durango.
This was the third accident in late March where 2-way radios provided a valuable communication tool. The three riders could communicate immediately after the avalanche, allowing Riders 2 and 3 to slowly and safely move downslope knowing Rider 1 was not buried. Rider 2 was able to contact another group on Palmyra Peak, who alerted authorities about the avalanche.
The three Riders were experienced backcountry travelers with formal avalanche training including recreational Level 2 classes. They were well aware of the multiple avalanches in the two weeks prior. Rider 1 visited several of the avalanches to learn more about the terrain and snowpack.
The idea of “exploring” new areas drew the group beyond their original plan. This was Rider 1's first time in this drainage and Rider 2 and 3’s second visit. The group was wary of the more open slope they were traveling on, but chose to proceed spaced apart. Rider 3 avoided the slope, and he and Rider 2 were discussing the slope steepness minutes before the avalanche. Unfortunately, Rider 1 was too far ahead to participate in the conversation. Changing plans in the field without a thorough group discussion is a common contributing factor in many avalanche accidents.
This accident occurred against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty search and rescue team members from multiple agencies were involved in this rescue. Other members were held on standby but not sent to the site to decrease the number of people potentially exposed to COVID-19.
Figure 9: A snow profile in the crown face of the avalanche on Telescope Mountain. Observed on April 1, 2020.