Aspen backcountry snowmobile mishap sparks federal complaint
Pennsylvania man who lost his toes to frostbite sues local doctor, outfitter
A Pennsylvania man who lost his toes to frostbite after being stranded overnight in the backcountry has filed a federal complaint that accuses an Aspen doctor of negligence and an outfitter of leasing him a snowmobile that was incapable of navigating through deep snow.
Bruce Panczner filed a lawsuit last week casting blame on Woody Creek-based Great Western Adventures and physician Dr. Lesley Fraser, who is a general surgeon at Aspen Valley Hospital.
The complaint stems from a February 2016 outing involving Panczner and two other men who had tried to snowmobile to the Goodwin-Greene Hut, which is about 12 miles south of Aspen Mountain. But their snowmobiles, which they leased from Western Adventures, got stuck in the deep snow before they reached the hut.
“While digging out the stuck snowmobiles, Panczner’s boots became filled with snow, which thereafter melted due to body heat,” says the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Denver.
Panczner and the two other men — one was from Pennsylvania, the other Englewood — spent the night of Feb. 10, 2016, in a snow cave in the Bowman Creek drainage about a half-mile from the hut, according to Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office records.
Panczner was able to reach authorities at about 7 that night. Panczner reported at the time that no one in the party was injured and they were all in snowshoes, but they were concerned about the weather conditions, according to a sheriff’s report.
At about 8:30 the next morning, three Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers headed into the backcountry and found the men in a snow cave in the Bowman Creek drainage about a half-mile from the hut, the Sheriff’s Office said at the time. The three men and the volunteers were out of the field by 11:30 a.m.
Panczner, meanwhile, had begun to suffer frostbite that morning after his “soaking wet socks froze in the sub-freezing conditions,” the suit says.
Rescuers took Panczner to the Aspen hospital for frostbite treatment. There, Dr. Fraser initially told Panczner that a particular frostbite treatment that can decrease the likelihood of amputation, if administered within 24 hours, was not available in Aspen or Denver, the suit says.
Panczner, however, had researched the issue himself while at the hospital and relayed to Fraser that the treatment was offered at the University of Colorado Hospital, the suit says.
Fraser, realizing his oversight, apologized to Panczner and had him transported by a Flight for Life helicopter to the Denver hospital, the suit says.
But because he was transported after the 24-hour window, “all of the toes and parts of the forefoot on both feet had to be amputated,” the suit says.
Panczner, 55, contacted by phone Friday, declined to go into details about the incident.
“It was life-changing,” he said. “After a lot of therapy I am a lot more ambulatory than I was. I can at least get on my feet.”
Fraser could not be reached for comment.
Defendant Great Western Adventures is named in the suit because it allegedly failed to tell Panczner that the snowmobile he rented wasn’t powerful enough for the snowy conditions the day it was used.
Howard Vagneur, who owns the outfitter, said last week he had not seen the lawsuit but he remembered the event.
“Basically they rented some machines, but it turned out they didn’t know anything about the backcountry, but they claimed they did,” he said. “They rented the machines, and they were on their own.”
Vagneur also said the men used less-powerful snowmobiles so they could hitch sleds to them. Bigger snowmobiles geared for that day’s weather conditions were not suited to haul sleds, he said. Their “biggest mistake,” Vagneur said, was that they didn’t unlatch the sleds when they were plowing through the powder.
“Looking at it from hindsight, they should have unhooked their sleds and packed the trail out to the hunt, and then come back to pick up the sleds,” he said. “You don’t pull a fully loaded sled on an unpacked trail.”
Media accounts at the time of the incident quoted the Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen as saying they “wish to stress to the community and its visitors to seek professional advice and guidance before venturing into the high country during the winter months.”
Denver attorney Anthony Viorst filed the suit on Panczner’s behalf.
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.