Avalanche center report provides details on fatal slide in Marble
Report recommends how to use tools, communication to stay safe
A fatal avalanche in Marble on Feb. 25 emphasizes the need for all backcountry travelers to be aware of conditions even if they aren’t planning a big day of outdoor recreation, according to a report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
One man and two dogs were buried and killed in the avalanche. Two other people were partially buried but survived, the report said.
The Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office identified the victim as Nathaniel Smith, 27, of Colorado Springs, according to a report in the Crested Butte News.
CAIC forecasters investigated the incident and released a final report on Saturday. CAIC emphasized they prepare reports on incidents to help people understand the circumstances and hopefully avoid future avalanche accidents.
In the Marble incident, four people, three on snowshoes and one hiker, parked just outside the town at about 1 p.m. on Feb. 25 with the intent of traveling roughly 1 mile above town to spend the weekend in a secluded cabin, said the report by CAIC staff members Brian Lazar and Dylan Craaybeey. They left the Marble quarry road after a few hundred yards and followed an unmaintained road that parallels the Crystal River. After about 3/4 of a mile, they followed the road up the steep drainage of Yule Creek.
One person in the group was recovering from a previous lower leg injury and was in too much pain to continue with the others after about one hour, the report said. The group decided the hobbled person would wait at a bridge over Yule Creek while the other three people and two dogs proceeded to the cabin and picked up a utility all-terrain vehicle fitted with snow tracks to come back and retrieve the person.
The hobbled hiker advised the three snowshoers to stick to the higher road when they came to a fork up ahead, the report said. The roads were unmaintained old mining routes. At about 2:30 p.m. the snowshoers came to the fork but went onto the lower fork rather than the upper fork.
“They traveled a few hundred yards under steep west-facing slopes when they triggered the avalanche from below,” the CAIC report said. “Hiker 1 (Smith) was in the lead, saw the avalanche first, and yelled, “Run!” All three were caught in the moving debris and swept off the road towards the gully of Yule Creek below.”
CAIC does not list names in its reports on avalanche accidents. Smith is identified as hiker one throughout the report. It said he and the two dogs were buried by about four feet of snow in the gully.
“The avalanche carried hiker two into the gully, and he was buried with snow over his head and face,” report said. “He was able to clear the snow from his face with a free hand, but he could not extricate himself.”
Hiker three was buried to the waist and was able to extricate himself and then run over to dig out hiker two. They started digging with their hands and snowshoes to try to find Smith. They didn’t have shovels so the digging was ineffective, the report said.
The avalanche ran about 200 vertical feet and was about 50 feet wide, the report said.
The hobbled hiker heard their cries and made his way to the site. They determined they needed help so hikers two and three traveled back to Marble while the hobbled hiker proceeded to the backcountry cabin, got the utility vehicle and traveled to Marble. The vehicle was used to shuttle rescuers up to the site.
“They determined there was too much avalanche hazard to proceed with a search in the dark,” the report said. The effort resumed the next day. The bodies of Smith and the two dogs were found at about 11:30 a.m. Feb. 26.
“This accident highlights the importance of trip planning and basic avalanche awareness when traveling in snow-covered mountains, regardless of your activity,” the report said. “Even a short hike along an unmaintained road requires planning. Identifying terrain to avoid is an important part of planning.”
Once risky terrain is identified, it is important that the information is communicated to all members of the group and that everyone understands the terrain to be avoided, CAIC said.
Hikers two and three exited the site on the lower road on their trip back to Marble.
“It is very fortunate they did not trigger additional avalanches on their way out,” the report said.
CAIC said the Marble incident also stresses the need to use available tools to identify the danger. Heavy snow fell in the Central Mountains between Feb. 15 and 25. CAIC documented 89 avalanches in the Aspen zone between Feb. 22 and 24, on west to north to east aspects at all elevations. An avalanche warning expired at 5 p.m. on Feb. 24 and was replaced with a special advisory about danger conditions through Feb. 27.
The group was traveling on a clear, sunny day on Feb. 25. They were on a slope with a west aspect and angle of 39 degrees, according to the report. The site was at about 8,200 feet in elevation.
The written report and a video can be found at avalanche.state.co.us.
There have been four avalanche fatalities in Colorado this winter, following 12 in 2020-21. CAIC provides reports on avalanche conditions throughout the winter.
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