Experts share how to stay safe in Colorado backcountry after snowshoer deaths

Lindsey Toomer
Summit Daily
Avalanche debris is pictured Sunday, Jan. 9, at the site of a fatal slide on Hoosier Pass.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

After the death of two snowshoers in an avalanche near Hoosier Pass on Saturday, Summit County Rescue Group and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center shared ways those who explore the backcountry can stay safe.

Hannah Nash, 25, and Drake Oversen, 35, of Colorado Springs, died along with their dog Valerie after they were caught and buried in an avalanche they triggered while snowshoeing near North Star Mountain. The cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma and asphyxiation, according to the Summit County coroner.

Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the center documents human interactions with avalanches from a scientific, public safety and education perspective. Over the next few days, the center will release a full report to try to explain as much as it can about the avalanche, and law enforcement will wrap up their investigation processes, as well.

According to the CAIC’s preliminary report, the slide broke about 10 feet deep, 400 feet wide, ran about 250 vertical feet and was caused by the snowshoers.

Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Charles Pitman said the group received a call around 10 a.m. from folks in Colorado Springs noting their friends didn’t show up to a planned meet-up, and they were snowshoeing around Crystal Lake. Pitman said there are two Crystal Lakes in Summit County, and while a sheriff’s deputy didn’t see any sign of the couple’s vehicle at the first trailhead, they later found it at the top of Hoosier Pass.

Pitman said after finding the car, the mission coordinator asked if Flight for Life could launch to survey the area for anything that could indicate the couple was still out there, and Flight for Life came across the avalanche debris. He said because of snow and wind the previous day and night, there were no obvious tracks from the air, but it was clear the slide was large and could be an area where something happened to the missing pair.

The Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program came in with the help of Flight for Life to bring two search dog teams, which consists of a dog, a dog handler and a snow tech. It was one of these dogs who discovered Nash, Oversen and their dog buried by the avalanche.

Greene said anyone who explores in the backcountry should be sure to have an avalanche rescue transceiver, a device that can connect to others of its kind and help locate someone in the case of an avalanche. He said when getting ready to go out in the backcountry, the transceiver should be set to send a signal, and in the case that a group is split up where one person is buried and another isn’t, one can set their transceiver to search where it will pick up on another transceiver’s signal.

“This is something that we all carry, and it’s extremely important,” he said.

Greene said while he doesn’t know if the couple who died this weekend were experienced in the backcountry, they did not have these devices on them. He also said snowshoers typically don’t go into avalanche terrain as much as skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers who are looking for the steeper slopes.

“It’s not usual, but it’s not unique,” Greene said about snowshoer avalanche deaths. “We have seen people that are involved in snowshoeing die in avalanches in the past.”

Pitman said he can’t recall another snowshoer death due to an avalanche in his time with Summit County Rescue Group.

“Snowshoers tend to do things that are relatively easy, and most of the time, they are away from the danger, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case,” Pitman said.

Pitman said he thinks many folks believe you can only trigger an avalanche from the top, but it can also be done from the sides or from below.

“There are multiple ways that an avalanche can be triggered, and I think it’s really wise for people to look long and hard at Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website and just what are the conditions and how are they setting up,” Pitman said. “That is a wealth of information that not every state has, and we’re fortunate to have one of the best, and they’re fairly focused.”

Greene said a little bit of education can also go a long way, especially for those looking to explore more high-risk terrain, and checking avalanche conditions is an important first step.

“Just like if you’re going to the beach or going to have a picnic, you want to know what the weather is going to be like so you can prepare for that, you can decide where you actually want to go, what sort of equipment you want to bring,” Greene said. “The same is true with avalanche safety, so checking the forecast is the most important thing that they can do.”

Greene said the avalanche danger was rated considerable — a 3 out of 5 — in the Summit County zone on the day the snowshoers died, and the location where the avalanche occurred near North Star Mountain was exposed terrain, where avalanches are more common. He said the area was a wind-loaded, near treeline slope that also happened to be facing northeast, making it particularly high risk for an avalanche.