No escaping risks in backcountry
When John William Jensen went out into the backcountry Sunday, he had every reason to believe he’d make it down safely that night.He was with one of the most qualified guides in the nation, Amos Whiting. Whiting had spent the afternoon teaching an advanced avalanche safety class to Jensen and four others, sharing his considerable backcountry and snow-safety expertise.The avalanche danger throughout the central mountains was moderate, with a few pockets rated as considerable.With Whiting’s guidance, Jensen and four others dug test pits along the ridge leading from the top of Highland Peak to the Five Fingers Bowl area above Castle and Conundrum creeks.Everything seemed in place for a perfect day in the backcountry for Jensen and his fellow adventurers, until, in just a few seconds, the full force of nature swept Jensen’s life away.According to an account of the accident published by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the group began its descent of one of the avalanche chutes in the Five Fingers area with all due caution.One at a time they skied across the top of the chute. The next skier would go only after the one in front had reached a safe point and stopped. The first two skiers had made it to the stopping point before Jensen dropped in, according to the CAIC report. A few turns in, he fell, causing the snow to break away several dozen feet above.At its crown, the slide was three feet deep and between 150 and 225 feet wide. As Jensen’s party looked on in horror, the 32-year-old New Mexican was violently dragged into a torrent of snow, ice and debris. Investigators believe he was carried about 3,500 feet.It took the class just 20 minutes to reach Jensen. Although initial reports came in saying Jensen died of bodily injuries suffered on the way down, the county coroner later ruled the cause of death as asphyxiation. In the end, Jensen suffocated under a few feet of snow.The group had done everything right, and still one of its members lost his life – a most unfortunate lesson in the consequences of risk-taking and backcountry adventure.Assigning blame at this point would be an exercise in futility. If Whiting had thought the chute was too dangerous to ski, he would have no doubt found another way down the mountain. And we shouldn’t distract ourselves from the real lesson this incident teaches about skiing in the backcountry. Being prepared, being knowledgeable and erring on the side of caution are just the basics when it comes to touring safely. But they are no guarantee. The risks are real and always there.
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