Avalanche near Friend’s Hut claims life of backcountry skier

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A group of backcountry skiers reported that a companion had been killed in an avalanche on the southwest face of Crystal Peak between Aspen and Crested Butte Wednesday.

At about 4:50 p.m. yesterday, a group of backcountry skiers used a battery-powered emergency radio at the Friend’s Hut, located 9.5 miles up from Ashcroft, to call the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

The caller reported that a person had been killed in an avalanche and said the rest of the party was not hurt.

Officials ultimately advised the group to not retrieve the fallen skier. They were instructed to spend the night in the hut to await the arrival of a search and rescue team from Crested Butte this morning, when it would be safer to travel to the site.

“They contacted us on the communications system,” said Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Mario Strobl. “They said there was no other injuries in the group, and they said they had one person confirmed dead.”

The caller also said there was a physician with the group that had confirmed the death, Strobl said.

Strobl did not release the names of anyone in the group, which he believed to include a total of six skiers.

However, Strobl said deputies contacted the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which gave them some information about the party, including that the person who made the group’s reservation was from Colorado, but not from the Aspen area.

After determining that the Friend’s Hut and Crystal Peak are just over the Pitkin County line in Gunnison County, local authorities referred the case to officials there.

Gunnison County officials then made the decision to send members of the Crested Butte Search and Rescue organization to the Friend’s Hut area early this morning.

“That was Gunnison County’s call,” Strobl said. “We offered any sort of mutual aide if they needed any.”

And then the sheriff’s office relayed the information back to the skiers in the Friend’s Hut.

“Basically, we told them to collect themselves and stay there until they were contacted by Gunnison County,” Strobl said. “We wanted to transmit the bare necessities to them so they didn’t use up the radio batteries.”

When the skiers called in, they reported that two skiers were still out touring, two were at the Friend’s Hut, and one was with the skier killed in the slide, Strobl said.

By nightfall, the remaining skiers had safely assembled at the hut. Strobl did not know if the group was with a guide or not.

At about 7 p.m., the group radioed the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and gave them enough information to allow authorities to try and notify the skier’s next of kin.

The Friend’s Hut was built in the fall of 1984 along a mountain route between Crested Butte and Aspen as a memorial to a 1980 midair collision of two small planes traveling between the two towns. Ten people, most of whom were from Aspen and Snowmass Village, were killed in the accident.

The eight-bed hut is managed separately from the 10th Mountain huts and the Braun huts, although reservations are managed by the 10th Mountain Association.

“We put that emergency radio in for medical emergencies,” said Murray Cunningham, a member of the Friend’s Hut board of directors. “I’m sorry that it had to be used in this vein.”

Information at the 10th Mountain’s Web site,, reports that the Friend’s Hut’s “surrounding terrain offers challenges for the expert skier as well as vast expanses for making telemark turns.”

Cunningham said that there is popular skiing on Crystal Peak, which is a short hike from the hut.

The avalanche forecast for the central Colorado mountains on Wednesday was “moderate.”

But the forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center also said that “depth hoar makes up nearly our entire snowpack, with hard and soft slabs resting on top on many N-SE aspects. Many avalanche professionals’ experience has been to ‘never trust a depth hoar snowpack.'”


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