Mountain Rescue Aspen recovers avalanche victim’s body
Preliminary report from Monday’s avalanche:
The Colorado Avalance Information Center has released a preliminary report of Monday’s slide. A more detailed report is expected later in the week.
Mountain Rescue Aspen recovered the body Tuesday morning of a man who was killed while skiing in a steep gulch outside the west boundary of Aspen Mountain on Monday.
The victim was identified by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office as John Martin Gancsos, 64, of Aspen. He was better known as Marty, the Sheriff’s Office reported. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center released a preliminary report Tuesday night. A more detailed report is expected later in the week.
Mountain Rescue Aspen put a “hasty team” of five strong skiers into the field before dawn. They used climbing skins on their skis to access the gulch via Midnight Mine Road.
The strategy was to get a team to the victim and bring him down as quickly as possible while temperatures were still cold and there was adhesion among the snow layers, according to Hugh Zuker, the incident commander on the slide for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Zuker also is a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen.
“Our hasty team was so strong and so fast they got to the victim in 45 minutes,” Zuker said.
They reached Gancsos at about 6:40 a.m., according to a statement by the Sheriff’s Office. They used a special toboggan with long handles so one skier could be in front and one behind to guide it down the steep pitch, Zuker said. They traveled through difficult terrain rather than down the same gulch during the recovery.
“They had to get him out of a lot of brush, a lot of willow coming out of the snow,” Zuker said.
The team was out of the field before 8:30 a.m., Zuker said. The body was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital.
Slide triggered Monday
The victim and another skier departed from Aspen Mountain ski area Monday afternoon. They skied out of bounds in an open area a short distance below the upper terminal of the Ruthie’s chairlift, according to authorities. That general vicinity is referred to as Keno, and the skiers were on what is known as the Peter Barker line, according to multiple sources.
Peter Barker was a skier who got caught in an avalanche in the steep terrain in the early 1970s but survived. Barker went on to work for several years as a ski patroller in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but he is no longer with the patrol.
Keno Gulch is technically farther north and empties into the Aspen Music School campus along Castle Creek Road. Over the years, more terrain was referred to as Keno, according to longtime Aspen Mountain ski patroller Tim Cooney. The area was also known as one time as Ophir, he said, but Keno stuck even if it isn’t historically accurate.
Gancsos was the first skier into the terrain among the two Monday, according to Blase Reardon, forecaster for the Aspen zone for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He investigated the scene Tuesday.
Gancsos triggered a slide about 30 feet above him, according to Reardon. The slide started narrow and grew from approximately 30 to 61 feet wide as it moved downhill. It slid about 630 vertical feet and continued a short distance beyond the victim, according to the avalanche center’s investigation. The start zone was on a pitch of about 38 to 40 degrees.
“He was completely buried,” Reardon said. “He was buried 45 minutes to one hour before he was located and dug out by the ski patrol.”
Gancsos was the third person killed by an avalanche in Colorado this year.
Slide area below treeline
The second skier avoided the slide, stayed at the scene and called authorities at about 3 p.m. That person provided precise information that the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol used to reach the scene. The body was located at about 4 p.m., according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The slide started at just under 10,000 feet in elevation. Gancsos was carried down about 600 vertical feet and was recovered at about 9,400 feet, according to Reardon.
The terrain is thick with conifer and aspen trees, with just a few steep chutes and gullies. The terrain is a textbook example of how the slide doesn’t have to be massive to have severe consequences, Reardon said. The terrain is very steep with multiple places where slides can be triggered and few places to escape, he said.
“I’m careful to avoid slopes with terrain traps unless it’s low danger,” he said. “Even then, I’m cautious.”
The avalanche danger was rated “considerable” above, near and below treeline in the Aspen zone Monday. The rating remains in place after as many as 30 inches of snow fell on higher slopes in the mountains surrounding Aspen in a storm that lasted from Friday into Monday. The danger isn’t going to decrease any time soon, with more snow in the forecast, Reardon said.
The avalanche information center urged continued caution for backcountry travel.
“As the snow from recent storms consolidates, the chances for natural avalanches diminishes, but the potential size of human-triggered slides increases,” Reardon wrote in his forecast Tuesday. “Dangerous slabs also exist on many small slopes above terrain traps. Avoid traveling on or below slopes steeper than about 30 degrees of any size or remain inside ski area boundaries.”
Zuker said the recovery of the body involved numerous parties beyond the five-member hasty team that entered the field. First, sheriff’s deputies and leaders with Mountain Rescue Aspen met Monday night in a strategy session with ski patrollers who had unburied Gancsos’ body earlier in the day.
Rescue leaders determined to start the recovery mission early the next morning and that no avalanche control would be necessary. About 21 members of Mountain Rescue Aspen gathered at 5 a.m. at the organization’s headquarters, Zuker said.
In addition to the team of five that went into the gulch to recover the body, four Mountain Rescue Aspen members went up Aspen Mountain by snowmobile, then skied and skinned into position to drop into the gulch from above, if needed, according to Zuker.
By first light, three spotters were in position across Castle Creek Valley to report on potential slide activity that wouldn’t be visible from the skiers in the gulch.
In addition, six members were prepared to ride the Silver Queen Gondola up the mountain at 8:15 a.m. and work with the ski patrol to cover any access points and prevent skiers and snowboarders from dropping into the Peter Barker terrain. Zuker said they didn’t want a skier coming in from above and triggering a slide on the rescue team.
Three Mountain Rescue Aspen officials remained at the headquarters to coordinate the operation. Zuker said it was a well-executed operation by Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Like the avalanche information center, the Sheriff’s Office urges backcountry travelers not to compromise their safety by falling victim to the powder. Skiers and snowboarders can get a false sense of confidence by returning to terrain they are familiar with and have skied before without issues, Zuker said.
“The problem with snow is it’s never the same,” he said. “People really need to mind their P’s and Q’s when they go into the backcountry.”
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