Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Editor’s note from Lou: This just in. Mike is the guy who dug out the only survivor of the tragic avalanche last Saturday that killed five near Loveland Pass, Colorado. I’ll leave comments turned on here, but we would appreciate if folks would make general comments about the avalanche over on our first Sheep Creek post from this morning.
ACCOUNT OF THE APRIL 20TH AVALANCHE ON LOVELAND PASS – by Mike Bennett
I am writing this account in order to assure that there is correct information across the board for news outlets. Please, out of respect for the victims and the situation, do not take any of this story out of context or assume creative license with the facts mentioned.
On April 20th, I and a group of friends met in the parking lot of Loveland ski area to enjoy some backcountry skiing. The previous evening, we had held a benefit for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and raised a substantial amount of money for the organization. We had an avalanche discussion highlighting some of the current dangers in the touchy Colorado backcountry.
Joe Timlin, who was the organizer of the gathering, was especially concerned with safety of all backcountry travelers and spoke to this matter at the event. The next morning, we congregated in the Loveland parking lot and decided to split into smaller groups who would visit different locations in the backcountry around Loveland Pass.
Our group decided on a route on the north side of I-70 while another group decided to head up the south side of the pass to a popular gully named Sheep Creek. We returned from our tour and hung out in the Loveland Valley parking lot waiting for our other friends to return. After a while, we started to wonder where they were. Soon after, we were approached by a group of CAIC/CDOT workers who notified us of an avalanche in the Sheep Creek drainage. Realizing that this was where our friends were supposed to be headed, we immediately rushed up the pass so check out what was going on.
Upon arrival, we attached our backcountry avalanche gear and headed out to the scene, which was not far from the access point on the road. As we rounded the corner, only a few hundred yards from the road, we saw a massive pile of avalanche debris. Dan Pedrow, who was a few minutes ahead of me, had already located one victim with his transceiver and was beginning to dig him out. I began searching the rest of the large area, with my beacon to try and locate other victims. At this time, two other backcountry travelers who were skinning in the area joined our search as they realized what was happening. I do not know these two gentlemen, but they were extremely helpful in the recovery.
As I continued searching the slope, I located a beacon signal, and followed it around a bend and past some trees. I heard someone moaning/yelling and immediately recognized one of our group. He was still buried but had his head above the snow and was breathing. I started to help dig him out, which was not easy as the snow around him was extremely hard and packed in. He was able to communicate and notified us that there were two others right next to him and three others downslope from him but he was not sure of their location.
At this time, I notified the other rescuers that I had multiple burials and one of them came to assist me. Upon digging the survivor out, we also discovered the bodies of two other men, Joe Timlin and Rick Gaukel. Both were unresponsive, not breathing, and had no pulse.
By now, rescue personnel from Loveland ski area and SAR had started to show up, and help locate other victims using their avalanche beacons. Their relief was welcome as the rest of us were beginning to get fatigued from digging in the hard snow. This was not an easy task as some victims were spread far apart and buried very deep in the snowpack, some wrapped in debris from trees. The search and rescue personnel and ski patrol did an incredible job of digging out the remaining victims and being respectful of the deceased. Their expertise and professionalism is to be commended.
It should be known that many of the members of this group were extremely experienced and educated in backcountry travel. They had all of the necessary gear, and knowledge of traveling in avalanche terrain. Joe’s number one intention for this event was safety and the well being of all of the participants. He had organized it well, and made sure that other people in the group read the avalanche report that morning, and chose conservative routes of travel. There is no doubt in my mind that this was exactly what the group was trying to accomplish. No body was out there for an adrenaline rush, or getting extreme. This event was about traveling safely in the mountains with our friends, making new friends, and having fun.
Of the victims, I was good friends with Joe Timlin. Having known him for many years, he always had a smile on his face when he was in the mountains. His spirit and enthusiasm were contagious and he loved snowboarding and created a life around it. He got joy out of making others happy, and derived pleasure from seeing his friends having as much fun in the hills as he was. His passion for the snowboard industry had led him to a job as a sales rep for a few good brands, which he was very passionate about. At the benefit the night before, we had almost doubled our goal for fundraising for the CAIC and he was excited to see the event get even bigger in the future.
I had just met many of the other victims within the previous 24 hours. They were all interesting people who I’m sure had families who loved them and will miss them greatly. Every single person involved in this tragedy deserves to be remembered as a good person who was doing their best to enjoy their love for the outdoors. Our hearts go out to their families and friends.
Please, as this information is published, I ask that you have the respect and honor for the deceased and the rescuers to only disseminate correct information, without bias, that will portray them in a good light. This story should not be sensationalized, rather used as a memorial for the victims, and education.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center official report.