Avalanche Kills One Backcountry Skier Near Aspen

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | March 7, 2005      

I planned on blogging something positive this morning, but woke up to a message on the answering machine from the Denver Post newspaper; a reporter looking for backstory on a backcountry skiing avalanche death yesterday near here. Apparently, local guide service Aspen Expeditions was running an avalanche education class in the Five Fingers backcountry skiing area on the side of the ridge south of Highland Peak and Highlands Ski Resort. One of their backcountry skiing clients/students was caught in an avalanche and killed.

Five Fingers is a series of HUGE chutes that run steep, about 3,500 vertical feet to a terrain trap gulch where the snow sometimes piles forty feet deep. Any average slab avalanche here is probably un-survivable, apparently yesterday’s was indeed a violent killer (though it appears to have not run into the trap, but rather ran about 3,100 vertical feet and piled up at a lower angled area just above there.) It’s reported the victim was buried around 20 minutes and died of asphyxiation.

Backcountry skiing Aspen Highlands, Five Fingers.
View of Five Fingers from NE, angle of
Fingers is steeper than photo indicates, avalanche deposition
zone is out of photo. This backcountry skiing area is easily and legally
accessed from Aspen Highlands Ski Area.

View of Five Fingers from NE, angle of Fingers is steeper than photo indicates, avalanche deposition zone is out of photo. This backcountry skiing area is easily accessed from Highlands Ski Area.

More backcountry skiing details as they come in. For now, many of you know I’ve been blogging for months (see blog track-back at bottom of page) about how avalanche safety education needs more emphasis on judgment, risk, and consequence. This sad event in Five Fingers occurred on a day when the hazard at timberline (the Fingers starting zones) and above was rated Moderate, which means skier triggered avalanches are possible. More, this east and northeast facing chute is known to produce plentiful natural avalanches during hot sunny afternoons this time of year — and the group was up there at 2:30 P.M.

Reports are saying the day’s heat was perhaps _not_ a factor. But from my own experience I would beg to differ. If the snowpack is tender, and a warming trend ensues, it can weaken layers even in colder, higher altitude snow. We’ll probably never know if this was really a contributory factor in the actual triggering of this avalanche, but it’s worth mentioning.

More, it’s obvious from the photos shown on the Aspen Times website that one reason the slide ran so far and large is that it propagated into warmer snow as it fell down the path, adding volume and force. More, it appears to have stepped down through the pack layers as it ran, eventually reaching the ground in some places — again adding to the volume of snow.

It’s not known what the Aspen Expeditions avalanche class rated the danger, but even if they’d stuck with a “moderate,” that means through their own assessment they knew they could still trigger a sure-death slide while backcountry skiing this type of terrain — and they did.

Reading the preliminary news reports begs the question: “What in the world were they doing up there?” It’s known that the Aspen Expeditions guides are well trained and have quite a bit of experience. Nonetheless, if you choose to guide this type of terrain (or be guided), events such as this are inevitable since avalanche prediction and avoidance are imperfect arts — even for the best in the business.

More, as this was a guided group, the clients thus gave up some of their own decision making powers to someone else. Such will make for interesting discussion when it comes to the “human factor” side of avalanche safety.

It should be said that AT LEAST THIS GUIDED GROUP WAS EXPOSING ONLY ONE PERSON AT A TIME TO HAZARD, thus avoiding a multiple victim catastrophe similar to those happening all too frequently in other backcountry skiing areas.

Hopefully we can honor the victim and Aspen Expeditions by learning from their misfortune. My condolences to friends and family.


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