Four skiers survive huge avalanche
Less than a week after separate avalanches killed two backcountry skiers near Aspen, a party of four Aspen-area residents skirted death in an enormous slab avalanche in the Maroon Bowl backcountry at about 2 p.m. Monday.All four young men were in the bowl when most of it ripped out – with enough force to take out a freight train, one witness said – and barreled down some 3,500 vertical feet before coming to rest on the near bank of Maroon Creek.”To say they were lucky isn’t even accurate,” said Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy George Kremer. “In spite of everything they did, they happened to survive.”The party of skier Brian Spencer Anzini, 22, and snowboarders John Patrick Francis, 21, David Victor Sundseth, 25, and Aaron Lougee, 21, managed to escape uninjured.”We all knew it was a pretty big risk,” Anzini said last night. “We just took a gamble that it wasn’t as big a risk as it was. We got lucky.”The party triggered the slide while skiing a chute known as N-5, one of the north-facing gullies in Maroon Bowl. Maroon Bowl is a backcountry area easily accessible from the Aspen Highlands ski area, located on the opposite side of the ridge from Highland Bowl and clearly visible from the top of the Loge Peak lift. The area is not patrolled; skiers and boarders may access it at their own risk.”It was a big nonsurvivable avalanche, and I can’t believe anyone made it out of there, much less four of them,” said Guido Pescosolido, a local backcountry skier who witnessed the avalanche from Loge Meadow, just above the rim of Maroon Bowl. “I was watching with my jaw basically around my belly button, hardly believing my eyes.”Anzini, who works as a terrain-park sculptor at Buttermilk, said he, Francis and Lougee outran the avalanche, while Sundseth managed to avoid being sucked up in it from above. Francis, Lougee and Sundseth all work at the D&E Snowboard Shop in Aspen.Deputy Kremer and Rick Deane of T-Lazy-7 Ranch met the party at Maroon Creek after they safely skied down through the slide path.”I don’t think they really got it, unfortunately,” said Kremer, a backcountry skier himself who said he’s known three of the survivors for years. “I asked them if they’d read the papers about the recent deaths and they said yeah. They thought it looked pretty safe. But it was the worst possible time, 2 to 3 o’clock, to go into a suspect area.”People have a hard time remembering when the whole bowl has slid, but it does,” Kremer continued. “These guys had no business being back there in the time of day and the avalanche conditions that exist, even with avalanche probes and shovels. All that does is make bodies easier to find.”On Monday, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center listed the avalanche danger for the Aspen area as “considerable,” noting that “triggered releases are probable on all aspects 35 degrees or steeper, at all elevations.”According to Pescosolido, the party climbed the ridge toward Highland Peak before entering out onto the northern spur of Maroon Bowl through a backcountry gate.”All four skied out to a prominent rock point at the center of N-5 and then started hucking off of it one at a time,” he said. “It was astounding to watch.”Pescosolido said two of the men caught about 20 feet of air before “the third guy hucked and kicked the avalanche. This avalanche was huge – classified by the CAIC as a size 4 [out of 5], taking out most of Maroon Bowl – big enough to take out a freight train.”It took out first N-5, then it took out the other north-facing shots, N-6 and N-7 – the main other shots from the peak – then continued to wrap around and took out the Buttress, the Green Tree Glades, Green Tree Gully, Dead Tree Gully and No Snow Gully, which are all west-facing. … The only thing it didn’t take out was the south-facing slopes.”Anzini said he, Lougee and Francis skied down to the base of the first pitch of the gully, while Sundseth waited on top of the rock outcropping.”We stopped in a safe zone and then we decided it wasn’t safe enough,” Anzini said. “Dave [Sundseth] stayed and the rest of us went farther down and then it went.”Pretty much everything went. I heard it coming and I took off and didn’t look back. … It was huge. I’ve never seen so many trees in an avalanche.”Lougee and Francis followed suit, bombing across the gut of the bowl to the skier’s right side toward the southern-facing slopes.”We got skier’s right of the path when it was going,” Anzini said. “And we had to hide in the trees as we traversed because more and more of it was coming down. We were almost riding across looking back at it. It was so loud. It just rumbled.”If any one of us would’ve fallen anywhere on our run we would’ve been gone. Right at the end, the avalanche was about 20 feet away and we were in a little island of safety.”After the slide went by, the three men began calling for Sundseth, who was on top of the rock outcropping when the slide broke. “We had to wait until it stopped, then we could yell loud enough. Then we heard his voice and we were stoked. It knocked him off the rock outcropping and into the trees, but he was OK. We were all fine,” Anzini said.Earlier in the day, the party safely skied City Chute, a south-facing gully located off the very summit of Highland Peak. Then they all piled into Anzini’s car, which he’d parked along Castle Creek earlier, and drove back to Highlands for another run, this time in Maroon Bowl. Anzini said they didn’t dig any avalanche pits to assess the snowpack either time.”We knew what we were going to find if we dug a pit,” he said. “But we shouldn’t have gone so late. It warmed up, then it released.”After all four men were accounted for, Anzini said, “We were just so happy to be there. We’ve all planned a trip to Vegas – no, I’m kidding. We used up all our luck on that one.”All four members of the party told Deputy Kremer that they were carrying self-rescue gear, including beacons, probe poles and shovels.”It’s high avalanche danger. We’ve had two deaths already right here and a death in Telluride, and then they go into an area in the worst time of the day and cut the slope, and in spite of it, they happened to survive,” Kremer said. “I’ve rock climbed and kayaked for 30 or 40 years, and as you get older, death becomes a lot more real, but at a young age, it’s a little bit more abstract. You basically end up with four very fortunate young men.”I know [John Francis’] mom very well,” the deputy continued, “and I’ve known him since he was born. It’s rough on an old fart like me in a small ski town.”
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