Backcountry skier killed on Crystal Peak identified | AspenTimes.com

Backcountry skier killed on Crystal Peak identified

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The man killed in a backcountry avalanche on Crystal Peak between Aspen and Crested Butte Wednesday was the county attorney from Alamosa who leaves behind a wife and three small children.

Dave Rooney, in his late 30s, apparently died in a small hard-slab avalanche on the southwest face of the 12,777-foot peak, which stands above the Friend’s Hut, 9.5 miles from Ashcroft.

His body was recovered Thursday afternoon by members of Crested Butte Search and Rescue. Difficult snow conditions prevented the search and rescue team from bringing Rooney’s body out of the backcountry on Thursday.

“The conditions were horrendous,” said Gunnison County Undersheriff Rick Besecker. “They were traversing hard crust that would break through and not hold them, and it was like sugar underneath.”

The rescue team originally tried going in on snowmobiles Thursday morning, but the machines bogged down in the waist-deep snow. The team then skied the roughly 12 miles to the site.

After a fatiguing day, eight members of the 11-member rescue team made the decision to spend Thursday night at the Friend’s Hut and bring out the body on a rescue sled Friday.

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“They are totally beat up,” said Gunnison County Sheriff Richard Murdie. “They are going to spend the night with the body and bring it down in the morning.”

Three other members of the search and rescue squad skied out of the East Brush Creek drainage toward Crested Butte on Thursday afternoon, as did the five members of Rooney’s group, none of whom were injured in the avalanche.

The five skiers spent Wednesday night at the Friend’s Hut after contacting the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office through an emergency solar-powered radio at the Friend’s Hut. After reporting that one member of their party was killed in an avalanche, they were advised to wait there for search and rescue teams to arrive on Thursday.

“It was probably a long night,” said Murdie

The five skiers were also believed to be from the Alamosa area and to have started their trip at Ashcroft and gone over Pearl Pass on Tuesday.

Gunnison County officials had not released the names of the five skiers as of Thursday night. They reached the Brush Creek trailhead south of Crested Butte Thursday afternoon and were taken to the Mount Crested Butte village.

Murdie said he thought the skiers had extensive backcountry experience and that they were well prepared.

“They had skied the backcountry before,” he said.

There were few details available Thursday night about what might have actually happened on Crystal Peak on Wednesday.

The group of six skiers seemed to be split into at least two groups when the avalanche occurred, and it is not clear how the avalanche was triggered.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center described the avalanche as being “on a southwest aspect, cross-loaded slope [and on] wind-scoured terrain above tree line.”

Lou Dawson, the author of “Dawson’s Guide to Colorado Backcountry Skiing,” is intimately familiar with the Friend’s Hut area.

He said the description from the CAIC made it sound like a “pocket avalanche,” where a section of snow had a hard wind slab on top of unstable, sugary snow underneath.

“There are a lot of those in that area,” said Dawson, who added that the current snowpack in Colorado’s backcountry is very unpredictable.

“We have a depth-hoar snowpack, which means a large percentage of the snowpack consists of sugary snow crystals,” he said. “It is very hard to predict how safe the snowpack is, and often it is not safe.”

And it is still not clear what happened on Crystal Peak.

“What happened up there simply could have been a mistake,” Dawson said. “They could have simply stepped onto the wrong slope at the wrong time.”

Dawson also said that the skiing around the Friend’s Hut is some of the steepest of all the backcountry huts in the Aspen/Snowmass area and that Crystal Peak, above the hut, is viewed as good spring skiing.

“That is more of a place where you tend to go in the springtime,” Dawson said. “But I would have to see exactly what they did. Maybe they weren’t really skiing a big avalanche slope. It’s hard to say.”