Avalanche kills one | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche kills one

Steve Benson and Tim Mutrie

A man taking part in an avalanche education class was killed in a large slide Sunday afternoon in the Aspen Highlands backcountry.The victim, whose name, age and hometown were not released, was with five other skiers in a course led by Aspen Expeditions, a local guide service. Amos Whiting, a highly experienced and trained guide, was apparently the leader of the Level II, or advanced, class.The slide occurred beyond the Highlands ski area boundary in an area known as Five Fingers Bowl. A skier on top of Highland Peak reported it at 2:45 p.m. The soft-slab avalanche swept the victim between 3,500 and 4,000 feet down a gully and buried him in heavy debris just above Conundrum Creek on the valley floor.The man, who also suffered critical injuries during the slide, was buried for about 20 minutes. When members of his party located him with avalanche transceivers and dug him out, he had a pulse but was not breathing. Members of the party and rescuers performed CPR on him for nearly an hour. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 4:42 p.m. Members of Mountain Rescue Aspen helped remove the body yesterday evening. An autopsy has been scheduled.Colorado Springs resident Drew Gibson was a member of the party.

Contacted at the Conundrum Creek trailhead, he said the group had dropped into the gully and was skiing its left side when the slope cut loose. It caught the victim in the center of the gully, then it rushed past Gibson and the other four members, who were out of its path on the left-hand shoulder. The victim was the only one caught.Gibson said he didn’t know how far down the party was from the ridge when the slide triggered. But they weren’t that far from the top. “I worked as a patroller at Copper for three years and I’ve never been that close to a slide before,” he said, shaking his head.The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had rated the avalanche danger for the Aspen area as moderate near and above treeline yesterday.The slide was approximately 3 feet deep at its crown, according to a Highlands ski patroller who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity. It was about 150 to 225 feet wide at the top.

It broke off near the top of the Highlands ridge on a north-northeast-facing slope. The nearest landmark is the summit known as Five Fingers Peak or The Thumb, at about 12,000 feet.It was rated as a Class III slide on a rising scale of five.”A big avalanche,” the patroller said.The massive debris field was littered with broken trees and was colored brown in spots, a shade apparently gathered as the slide ripped clear to bare ground in places.The slide marks at least the fourth avalanche in the last week in the backcountry off the ridge at Highlands, the patroller confirmed.Greg Hensley, a filmmaker from Basalt, witnessed the avalanche from the top of Highland Peak and reported it to patrol.It cracked once, then it drew another batch down from the top. It was like a two-fold avalanche, he said. We had been watching [the party], but you could hardly see them except when they were skiing. Then they dropped out of sight and then came the avalanche it just took that bowl and started dissolving the snowpack.It was scary witnessing it, knowing holy cow! those folks were right there.Two members of Mountain Rescue Aspen observed the slide while driving down Castle Creek Road. One member, who asked to remain anonymous, said she always looks up at Five Fingers when she drives past. They pulled over when she saw the debris. And after seeing movement in the debris field, they drove as far as they could up Conundrum Creek Road. Then they skinned to the scene and were the first rescue members to arrive.Rescuers initially requested a helicopter to airlift the victim, who broke both his legs and suffered severe head trauma.Highlands patrol director Mac Smith said the party was one of at least four Sunday to exit the ski area in search of backcountry powder off the Highlands ridge.For as many people who have gone out into Maroon Bowl and other places like that, this seems to be kind of inevitable at some point, said Smith, who has been patrolling Highlands since the 1970s.Dick Jackson, owner/guide of Aspen Expeditions, also since the 70s, and Whiting, the guide, could not be reached for comment.At least 46 people have been caught in avalanches in the state this season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The only other reported avalanche death this season was in January, when a backcountry skier from Steamboat Springs was buried on Buffalo Pass.Steve Bensons e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com; Tim Mutries e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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