Forest Service says no changes needed in powder tour operations after slide catches guide
The U.S. Forest Service has reviewed the facts surrounding a New Year’s Day avalanche that caught a guide with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours and determined the crew handled the incident “perfectly.”
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said the powder tour firm, owned by Aspen Skiing Co., submitted a preliminary report shortly after the event and a more thorough report Jan. 12. Skico uses national forest along Richmond Ridge for its snowcat powder tours. The special use requires an annual operating permit from the federal agency. The Forest Service also reviews accidents that occur on public lands within ski area boundaries and permit areas for the powder tours. It can and sometimes does order changes in procedures after accidents.
In the New Year’s Day slide, that was deemed unnecessary.
“I don’t believe we felt like we needed to provide additional direction,” Schroyer told The Aspen Times in an email.
The powder tour guide received a minor injury to his right knee in the slide. Another guide on the tour that day provided technical information and a general description of the incident on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website immediately after the accident. The report submitted to the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District on Monday provided additional details.
The guide grabbed a small tree after he was knocked off his skis by the slide, according to the report. That might have proved crucial to riding out the slide.
“He struck the largest and almost lone tree in his path with both feet,” the report by Aspen Mountain Powder Tours said. “He then rotated around the large tree and grabbed a small tree, slowing his ride and allowing the majority of the snow to pass him by. He came to rest on the surface for a total ride of approximately 450 feet.”
There has been speculation among some backcountry adventurers that the powder tour company took an unnecessary risk that day. The report by Aspen Mountain Powder Tours said the avalanche occurred on the sixth run in an area of McFarlane’s Bowl known as the Happy Face. (The powder tour report referred to the area as McFarland Bowl, but it’s most commonly called McFarlane’s or McFarlane Bowl. McFarlane Creek is on the east side of Richmond Ridge and empties into the Roaring Fork River just west of the confluence of the river and Difficult Creek.)
The accident occurred at about 11:30 a.m. Jan. 1 on a northeast aspect below timberline at an elevation of about 10,900 feet, the report said. The pitch was about 35 degrees.
Aspen Mountain Powder Tours reported there was a party of five skiers skiing the area, including two guides. “The avalanche released on the 40th set of tracks on that day in this area,” the report said.
The avalanche broke between the old and new snow surface about 15 inches deep. It was about 100 feet across and 450 feet long.
“Relative to the path, it was a small- to medium-sized avalanche, and involved a small area of snow relative to the oversize of the track,” the report by the powder tour operators continued. “It had enough potential to bury and kill a person.”
The tail guide of the group, the fifth skier down the slope, unintentionally triggered the slide, the report said. “On (his) second turn, the slope began to break above and to the right of him. He did one more turn to the skier’s left in an attempt to exit the side of the slide,” the report said.
Instead, his feet were swept from under him and he began riding the slide on the bed surface on his hip while sitting upright. After sliding a distance unspecified in the report, the skier struck the large tree and grabbed the small tree to slow his descent.
The lead guide and the tour customers witnessed the slide from a safe zone on a ridge that separates two parts of McFarlane’s Bowl, the report said. The lead guide started talking to the tail guide and learned he was injured and needed help.
The “powder tour safety team” was skiing nearby and was contacted by radio for help, the report continued. One member of the team skied in from above to make an initial evaluation and provide first aid. A second safety team member remained at the top for “scene security,” the report said. Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol was contacted for support.
A toboggan was retrieved from the snowcat and brought to the scene. The powder tour safety team and ski patrol hauled the toboggan to the snowcat, which traveled to a pick-up point. The cat hauled the injured guide to Aspen Mountain. He was transferred to a ski-patrol toboggan and taken to the ski area base to an awaiting ambulance.
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