Investigation reveals details of fatal avalanche
Aspen Expeditions has been guiding and teaching rock, alpine, ski mountaineering and avalanche education since 1979. Aspen Expeditions’ guides have been trained or certified by the American Mountain Guides Association and trained by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
Avalanche Education courses are offered for both Level 1 as an introductory curriculum and Level 2 for advanced snow science and decision-making in the field. Based upon my initial investigation of information available at this time, the following is my understanding of the events that took place last Sunday.
A Level 2 course was in progress from March 4-6, with six participants led by one senior lead certified guide/instructor and one intern/assistant instructor. The first two days of the course involved instruction in data recording and assessment of snowpack bonding and stability. These sessions were conducted on the “backside” of Aspen Mountain along Richmond Hill, taking advantage of easy access to both east and west aspects near and below treeline.
Along with data recording were specific priorities such as terrain recognition, safe travel techniques, communication, and an assessment of the participants’ ski ability. It was decided that the third and final day of the course would take advantage of early lift access to the top of Aspen Highlands ski area to facilitate a “fracture line/crown” profile study on a skier-triggered avalanche outside the ski area boundary in Maroon Bowl that occurred about a week before. Because of various circumstances, the group was reduced to four participants, making a total of six. They split into two teams to study the Maroon Creek avalanche, which took about two hours until 11 a.m.
It was also a course goal to share decision-making in the context of “peer group” dynamics that are often the case in backcountry skiing or snowboarding in avalanche terrain. The group then proceeded out of the ski area to traverse the Highlands Ridge to the south of Highlands Bowl, ultimately arriving at the “Thumb” which defines the north, or skier’s left, boundary of Five Fingers Bowl, that is on the east side of Highlands Ridge. Once again the group split into two teams to conduct full profile study pits on both northeast and southeast aspects at the top of the main gully to the skier’s left of the central rib directly below the Thumb.
The precise location for these study pits was selected to be both representative of the slope in question and in a safe area relative to a potential deep instability. The data recording with these profiles are quite standardized, yet everyone is instructed to base decisions far beyond the results gained from a single pit. In addition to full profile recording, the teams also performed Rutchblock tests, which actually loads the snowpack with the weight of a skier. Results from the pit bonding and Rutchblock tests indicated fair to good stability.
There is a term called spatial variability, which underlines the strong likelihood that there may be inconsistent test results in different locations where tests are conducted. With an awareness of the season-long slide activity, a heightened level of concern was acknowledged with regard to slopes that had avalanched previously, resulting in a relatively shallow snowpack with poor bonding to the old “bed surface.” With that reality always in mind, the choice of terrain and group management becomes the determining factor for traveling in avalanche terrain.
Just prior to 3 p.m., the decision was made to begin the ski descent down the central rib directly below the Thumb. It was also agreed upon by the group that participants would ski one at a time from one “safe island” to another, following the tracks and stopping above and adjacent to the guide. The assistant instructor led the first few pitches, connecting several turns from one bench on the rib to another, always skiing down the crest of the rib itself.
The lead guide then took the lead and continued the descent, carefully testing the slope with just a single turn down the fall-line and then a strong traverse cut back right to the crest of the rib. Once the lead guide stopped, he signaled for the first participant to follow. As this second skier followed the guide’s track, the assistant guide instructed the group to ski conservatively, stay on the crest of the rib and stay very close to the lead guide’s track.
Again the guide called for the next skier to come down and at that point John [Jensen] began to ski. John was skiing on telemark equipment and while he could have skied closer to the rib crest, he began making wider turns that traversed the northeast flank of the rib toward the gully more than the other skiers had. He remained in the fall line off of the rib, placing him on steeper, more exposed terrain moving further left of the guide’s tracks. After about five turns he lost control and shifted his weight onto the back of his skis. This put him off balance while turning to the right and caused him to fall downhill hard onto the slope.
Upon impact he rolled over to correct his stance, but the slope collapsed uphill of him. He appeared to attempt to “swim” with the moving snow, but then the fracture propagated up the gully dramatically and John disappeared over a convexity with the slide.
The whole group observed the accident and immediately assessed the situation for continued avalanche danger from above. The group had been trained in avalanche rescue, and also because the participants were quite experienced, the decision was made to initiate the search immediately. The lead guide was already 500 feet down the gully on the bed surface cutting back and forth across the slope, performing a hasty search.
The rest of the group switched to receive mode on their transceivers and began their descent down the slide path. The group descended approximately 3,000 feet through avalanche debris, with the lead guide, the assistant instructor and the second skier moving quickly together. The last two participants followed more slowly due to the difficulty of the terrain and skiing through the debris. Approximately 20 minutes after the avalanche occurred a signal was picked up from John’s transceiver and within a few minutes a probe strike confirmed John’s location.
The probes hit his ski (one ski was still attached) and all members began digging, joined by the other two participants. His ski was about two feet down, with his head another two vertical feet lower. It took about 10 minutes to extricate John from the debris. Once extricated, John was not breathing but had a pulse. CPR and rescue breathing were commenced. The assistant instructor and one participant then skied down to alert Aspen Mountain Search and Rescue, contacting two members who had seen the slide while driving down Castle Creek Road from Ashcroft.
Witnesses from the summit of Highland Bowl also alerted the sheriff’s office and Aspen Mountain Rescue. The participant continued down to alert Aspen Expeditions while the assistant guide skied back to the group to assist with CPR rotations. Aspen Mountain Search and Rescue personnel were on scene and in contact with a doctor and the coroner. After nearly an hour, CPR was ceased and John was pronounced dead on the scene. The instructors and course participants aided Mountain Rescue personnel with the extrication of John’s body to the trailhead on Conundrum Creek.
There is an inherent risk while traveling in avalanche terrain in the high country. While we at Aspen Expeditions acknowledge this risk, it is our full time commitment to utilize our training and experience to reduce the exposure to our participants and guests. There is also a relationship with our participants and guests that is quite intimate and mutually responsible, based on our interdependence in either technical terrain or the use of technical climbing, skiing or rescue equipment. This accident is the first of its nature and tragic results.
Aspen Expeditions wishes to thank members of the community who assisted in the rescue. Our heartfelt best wishes go to all of John’s family and friends at this most difficult time.
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