Memorial and Site Visit — Brettmann Avalanche

Post by blogger | December 22, 2008      

The mountains give so much. But oh how they take. Avalanche victim Cory Brettmann’s memorial this past Friday afternoon, atop Aspen Mountain, brought that point to me like a gut punch.

Brettmann was a big man with a big heart. Hearing stories of his life brought an admixture of sadness and laughter to a standing room only crowd at the Sundeck restaurant. We laughed as his friends shared stories of Brettmann’s life as a ski patroller and mountain man — and sadness stung our hearts, that a life would be cut short by the mountains we so often associate with love and joy.

Cory Brettmann memorial.

Cory's former workmates of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol lined up in the receiving line at the gondola debark. Since 1948 these guys have watched over us while we play. Indeed, they've sledged yours truly down the hill more than once.

Cory Brettmann memorial.

Inside the 'Deck, Cory's friends sharing remembrances.

Cory Brettmann avalanche site visit.

A few days later Louie and I visited the avalanche path where Brettmann died. While the area is heavily timbered, skiers drop a series of fairly large steep openings that are indeed full-on potential avalanches. More, all potential slides in the area strainer through trees. In photo above, Louie is checking out the avalanche crown. This was of course a classic Colorado deep slab avalanche. These things move so much snow that even on a relatively small path such as this, you have no control of your fate once you're caught.

Cory Brettmann avalanche site visit.

Looking down the path. It was very instructive to see how even a small pitch (200 vertical feet) in the woods could kill, given the right conditions. Louie has spent a lot of time with me tiptoeing around in the forest skiing lines like this -- and sometime skipping them. They're so incredibly deceptive, as you just don't think that much snow could get moving big enough to hurt or kill you.

Cory Brettmann avalanche site visit.

Louie makes some turns for Cory, down his last run.

Over the years Louie and I have skied together, I’ve been a big advocate of tree skiing as a way to avoid much of Colorado’s frequently high avalanche danger. Yet having seen more than a few other tragedies like Cory’s, I’ve tried my best to communicate that if the trees are open and the snow touchy, danger lurks. Seeing Cory’s accident site brought this home like nothing else we could have looked at. Worth a dozen avalanche classes.

(Some of you might wonder how were were able to safely ski here. A bit of new snow had fallen on the bed surface, but the whole area was hacked up by the rescue and other site visitors, so we had little worry. On the other hand, we passed above a number of similar slopes while skiing over to this one. They indeed looked tempting and some were already scribed with ski tracks.)

(CAIC accident report here.)


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7 Responses to “Memorial and Site Visit — Brettmann Avalanche”

  1. Kirk R December 22nd, 2008 10:26 am

    RIP Cory.

    I probably would’ve skied that, myself.

  2. Chuck December 22nd, 2008 10:35 am

    Another lesson learned from someone elses tragedy.

  3. Eric December 22nd, 2008 11:34 am

    Thanks for the post Lou. My condolences go out to all of Cory’s friends and family. It’s sobering, to say the least. A lesson learned, as Chuck said, although it’s not the way I would’ve like to learn it.

    What would you do if skiing fairly tight trees, and while skiing suddenly came out into an opening like this? Stop quickly? Turn to the edge and get back in the trees right away?

  4. Brett Dolenc December 22nd, 2008 12:03 pm

    What is the slope angle where this slide occured?

  5. Lou December 22nd, 2008 12:10 pm

    Weird the CAIC report doesn’t have the slope angles. I was assuming they’d be in the avy report. Louie and I were short on time when we got there so we didn’t get out the slope meter. I’d estimate the starting zone was 38 degrees or so, then kicking down to the classic 35 degrees. Many of the slopes in that area start with a mean little steep pitch that’s a perfect trigger zone.

  6. Randonnee December 22nd, 2008 12:44 pm

    In general trees may not hinder avalanching and may just add another type of hazard to the scenario. I cannot speak directly to this incident and do not wish to do so. It is more than sobering to me that this great guy was so experienced, my own experience pales in comparison, and that is frightening in light of the accident.

    But again, here in the Cascades trees that are spaced just enough to make turns and somewhat limbed naturally on the proper angled slope are often within active avalanche paths. We observe avalanching regularly in some areas just ripping through trees, and folks sometimes enter those areas unknowingly in regard to the fact that they are entering an active avalanche path.

    The size of the path required for a life-threatening avalanche is really not much. I once kicked a giant Cascade windroll above a small slope. It was as much volume as a Hummer, and fell about 15 feet to the flat, and I marveled at how that little slope would have easily killed me had I been beneath it.

    Out of Cory’s tragedy we will reconsider and focus and perhaps benefit from it.


  7. Mark December 22nd, 2008 7:48 pm

    Guess we all need to erase what preconceived notions we have regarding slides and just file this sad turn of events away as another piece of information we can use to help us make informed decisions while recreating in avalanche terrain.

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