Guide service owner: No poor decisions made
He doesn’t like it, but Dick Jackson acknowledged yesterday that “dealing with the dark side” of living and playing in the mountains is part of his life and profession.During interviews with local media Wednesday, the owner of Aspen Expeditions noted the loss of friends Raoul Wille and Dave Bridges to mountainside tragedies. “There’s nothing you can do about what happened, but there’s everything you can do with how you deal with it. That, to me, is critical. You need to come from the heart,” he said.Jackson yesterday released a report detailing the circumstances of an avalanche that killed a New Mexico man who was participating in an avalanche education course led by Jackson’s company in the Highlands backcountry Sunday afternoon. (See Jackson’s account, “Investigation reveals details of fatal avalanche.”)”That ‘if’ word will haunt any of us,” said Jackson, whose report appears on page A11. “And at this point, I’m reporting observations. We know the consequences, we know what happened.”John Jensen, 32, of Los Alamos, N.M., died of asphyxiation after taking a 3,500-foot ride in the slide and being buried for about 20 minutes. He was with a party of six in the Five Fingers Bowl area beyond the boundary of the Highlands resort.
Jensen was accompanied by Aspen Expeditions’ head guide, Amos Whiting, of Aspen and intern/assistant guide Gregory John Walters of Aspen. The three other course participants were Maximiliano Barrus-Achondo, a Snowmass ski patroller here for the winter on a patrol-exchange from La Parva ski resort in Chile; Aspen resident Barton Linden Mallory; and Colorado Springs resident Andrew E. Gibson.All five survivors submitted witness statements to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office that contributed to Jackson’s report.The avalanche broke as the group skied the second pitch of a pronounced rib off the east side of the Highlands Ridge, below a point known as the Thumb. Walters led the first pitch, skiing to a safe zone along the rib. Once the party regrouped, Whiting skied on past, taking the lead on the second pitch.The guides set a track as close to the northerly side of the rib crest as possible, aiming to avoid the potential dangers of the gully proper.Mallory followed Whiting’s track down the second pitch, joining him at another safe zone.”Backcountry conditions are something we cannot control; we can only assess,” Jackson said Wednesday. “The only thing you can control is the terrain that you’re on. Terrain is the key. And that’s what the intention was, to stay on the crest of the rib.”
Then Jensen descended toward Whiting and Mallory.According to Jackson’s report, he skied left of the track that Whiting set – nearer the gully’s gut. He lost his balance and fell. The impact triggered the avalanche in the gully proper and swept Jensen to the valley floor in a torrent.The others were out of harm’s way along the rib crest.”Entering that part of the snowpack had its consequences,” Jackson said. “Let’s face it, most of the time when people are cutting a slope, it tends to be a non-event. And when there’s any event, especially of this nature, it’s too easy to be judgmental. … The result was what it was.””Really, I don’t think there were any poor decisions made, at all. The backcountry is variable and the human factor kicks in,” Jackson added.
The party “was really prioritizing staying on the rib itself, meaning the crest itself would be virtually free from slide danger. And everything was done in a very protocal-based scenario. You ski one at a time when you’re concerned about things. Terrain choice becomes critical to travel in avalanche terrain. Short pitches is a good thing, as long as you’re starting and finishing each pitch in a safe island.”The five other skiers located Jensen with avalanche transceivers and dug him out from under 4 feet of debris. They couldn’t revive him after nearly an hour of CPR.”I’ve been out in the field a lot with Amos, I know his training, his experience, his thought pattern, and I feel that given the communication and the decisions made, it was a good decision. The variation on what happened, again, that’s what happened. In the moment, there was nothing to do about that because it unfolded turn by turn,” Jackson said.”And it’s too subjective to say at what point did the straw break the camel’s back, at what point was the stress greater than the strength. Cutting a slope, and certainly falling onto it and that impact … in the backcountry, when the snowpack is fragile, you’re in a place where it may not take much to trigger [a slide].”Considering the amount of terrain that was covered, the actual rescue happened pretty quick. It’s also significant that only one person got caught because it does say a lot for skiing short pitches and being very much in touch with group management and skiing from safe island to safe island,” Jackson said.”We’re sad to be involved with [an avalanche fatality], it’s never happened before, and my strongest feeling is for John’s closest friends and his family at this point. They’re the ones who are really feeling the impact more than anyone else right now.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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