Arapahoe Basin, CO Jan. 26--An avalanche on a popular backcountry ski run near the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area caught and killed a 20-year-old snowboarder from Breckenridge, CO.
According to Summit County Sheriff Joe Morales, the snowboarder was riding in an area known as the Steep Gullies, about a quarter mile west of the ski area boundary on U.S. Forest Service land.
The steep, rock-lined chutes are frequently visited by backcountry enthusiasts, who access the area via a gate that exits A-Basin Ski Area near the top of the Norway lift. Skiers and boarders commonly ski the area several times during a day, hitchhiking up US Highway 6 back to the ski area, where they use the lifts to gain access to backcountry.
The area is known for dangerous snow slides. The narrow gullies present a formidable terrain trap, funneling snow to dangerous depths. Recent heavy snowfall in the mountains has resulted in widespread cycles of avalanches. Consequently forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center have issued an avalanche warning for parts of the northern and central mountains. More than 60 slides reportedly hit the center on Sunday.
It was the third avalanche death in Colorado in a 72-hour period. Also on Tuesday, a slide caught and killed a 23-year-old skier in an out-of-bounds area near Aspen Highlands. Another slide killed a snowshoer near Berthoud Pass Sunday.
"It's probably the second or third fatal accident I've seen up there in the past six years," Morales said of Tuesday's slide, adding that the victim's name is being withheld pending notification of next-of-kin.
Morales said the snowboarder was riding with a friend. The pair made one descent in the area, triggering a slide along the way.
"Apparently they thought it was pretty cool, so they did it again," Morales said.
On their second trip down, they triggered another slide, with deadly results. The victim was not wearing an avalanche beacon, Morales said. The second snowboarder, apparently unharmed, attempted to find his friend, but quickly decided to go for help. Another group of three snowboarders nearby helped with the initial search, according to reports. It's not clear if all five were in one party.
"It was a good-size slide," Morales said. "It was a big one. From looking at it, I'd say it ran about 1,000 to 1,500 feet." The victim was declared dead at the scene. Morales said the man had obviously suffered severe trauma, bashing into rocks and trees during his fatal slide down the mountain.
"It's one of the worst I've seen up there," Morales said, adding that Tuesday's death is the "third or fourth" avalanche fatality in that area during the past six years.
According to Morales, rescuers were dispatched to the accident scene at 1:05 p.m. and arrived on the scene by 1:20 p.m. Search teams worked at the base of the slide closing the highway for several hours.
Morales said trained avalanche dogs alerted searchers to the presence of the victim at 2:18 p.m. The buried man was located about six to eight inches below the surface, with an outstretched hand reaching upward, Morales said.
Morales said extremely hazardous conditions persist in the High Country, and warned backcountry enthusiasts against traveling in avalanche-prone terrain. With more snow and wind in the forecast, conditions are likely to deteriorate before they improve.
The warning issued by the avalanche center covers Summit County and eastern Eagle County, including the Gore, Tenmile, and William's Fork ranges. The popular backcountry in the Front Range vicinity of Loveland pass is also included.
Currently, the CAIC is rating the avalanche danger as "considerable" to "high" near or above tree line. The rating means natural and triggered releases are probable, particularly on north- to southeast-facing slopes.