Avalanche info center issues final report on fatal Aspen slide
Marty Gancsos and his skiing companion were on familiar terrain and carrying avalanche beacons when a slide caught and killed Gancsos outside the western Aspen Mountain ski-area boundary Feb. 23, according to a final report issued Sunday by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The two men might have been emboldened by their familiarity with Ophir Gulch, the backcountry area where the slide occurred, and because they saw the tracks of four snowboarders from earlier in the day, the report said.
The report by Aspen zone forecaster Blase Reardon and avalanche center Deputy Director Brian Lazar said Gancsos met a friend at the top of Aspen Mountain around 1 p.m. after both of them had been skiing for several hours. Neither man was named in the report. Gancsos was listed as “Skier 1,” while his friend was listed as “Skier 2.”
Gancsos had been skiing inside the ski-area boundary while Skier 2 had taken two solo backcountry runs off the east side of the ski area, the report said.
“Skier 1 immediately suggested skiing the Peter Barker run (the site of the accident). Skier 2 was reluctant because he was not carrying avalanche rescue gear,” the report said. “After some discussion, the two skied to Skier 1’s locker at the base of the mountain, where they retrieved a second beacon, shovel and probe.”
The men checked in at the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol headquarters on Aspen Mountain around 2 p.m. Patrollers said they alerted the men of fresh slides in the backcountry adjacent to the ski area.
Conditions were ripe for avalanches. The ski patrol had recorded 18 inches of snow between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15 before two storms dumped 22 inches of snow in mid-February, right before the fatal slide.
The skiers utilized a beacon check at the door of the patrol headquarters and confirmed that their gear was transmitting, the report said. They went to the Ruthie’s side of the mountain and peered into Ophir Gulch, where they saw the four snowboarders’ tracks.
“They interpreted that as evidence of stability, so they continued a few hundred feet to the entrance for Peter Barker,” the report said.
They worked their way down 600 vertical feet through conifer trees and aspen stands to avoid what is considered an avalanche start zone at the open entry to Ophir Gulch, the report continued. They discussed how to ski the Peter Barker Gully and who would ski first.
The report said the companions had skied together for at least 15 years and had skied Peter Barker together at least 15 times. Gancsos had skied the line numerous times and guided numerous people in there, the report said.
Gancsos made two or three turns when his friend saw the snow fracture about 10 yards above Gancsos.
“Skier 2 yelled as loud as he could, but Skier 1 continued skiing down,” the report said. “The fracture broke across the slope, starting on the skier’s left side. Skier 2 yelled ‘Go left!’ three times, but Skier 1 didn’t appear to hear the yells. The moving snow caught up with Skier 1 on his fifth or sixth turn and swept him around a corner into the main gully and out of sight of Skier 2.”
The surviving skier followed the debris path down and called 911 about a third of the way down, according to the report. The call was patched in to Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol at about 2:50 p.m. The surviving skier found both of Gancsos’ skis and a pole in the debris, but he couldn’t pick up a beacon signal despite zigzagging and repeatedly turning his beacon on and off. A team of four ski patrol members departed Aspen Mountain at 3:12 p.m. They picked up a beacon signal at 3:31 p.m. They unburied Gancsos within minutes and started basic life support and first aid. One of the rescuers was a paramedic, the report said. Resuscitation efforts ended at 5:02 p.m.
Gancsos was buried in about 25 centimeters of snow for at least 45 minutes, according to the report. The Pitkin County Coroner’s Office ruled he died of asphyxia.
Ophir Gulch is attractive to backcountry travelers because it is easily accessible from the ski area. It’s also perilous. Another skier was killed in the Peter Barker Gully in 1998, and one was seriously injured in 2010.
The rescue team decided it could not recover the body Monday because there was still about 1,000 vertical feet of terrain and obstacles to negotiate to get to Midnight Mine Road in the dwindling light. Additional patrol members brought a toboggan to the site and secured the victim for the evening before departing. A team from Mountain Rescue Aspen used climbing skins to reach the site the next morning and recover the body.
“Familiarity with the terrain and the presence of other ski tracks on a nearby slope gave the group some degree of confidence that entering Peter Barker was a reasonable decision on the day of the accident,” the report said. “However, these factors can also serve as heuristic traps that lead people to expose themselves to more avalanche danger.”
The full report can be read at http://avalanche.state.co.us.
Meanwhile, an avalanche watch is in effect for Aspen through today at 6 p.m. An avalanche warning is in effect in the southern part of the state, including the Gunnison zone.
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Both President Donald Trump and the Republican Party stand to reap quite a windfall after Vice President Mike Pence visits Aspen on Monday for a fundraiser.