Pitkin County avalanche ‘hot spots’
Aspen Times Staff Writer
The mountains and valleys surrounding Aspen can be paradise for backcountry enthusiasts. They can also be deadly.
If the last decade or so of avalanche activity proves anything, it is that parts of just about all the terrain surrounding Aspen can slide, given the right conditions.
Reports of close calls abound among backcountry travelers, but punctuating the near misses that mark the passing of each winter in the high country are the deaths of others who aren’t so lucky. The victims are often experienced backcountry skiers who, ultimately, got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The bottom line is, if you want to stay away from avalanches, stay away from terrain that is more than 30 degrees,” advises David Swersky, a rescue leader with Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Slopes of 35 to 38 degrees in pitch are prime avalanche zones, according to Swersky. Anything steeper isn’t likely to hold huge snow accumulations, while anything flatter isn’t likely to slide.
But the backcountry adventurer will find aspects in that 35- to 38-degree range somewhere in just about every direction fanning out from Aspen, Swersky noted.
“Hunter Creek ” I’d call that pretty safe,” he said.
Quiz Swersky about the “hot spots” around Aspen, and he rattles off a list of popular ski routes and powder stashes. Just about all of them have claimed at least one life during his long tenure with Mountain Rescue.
“The one that comes to mind first, for one, is McFarlane’s Bowl off Richmond Ridge,” Swersky said.
And then there’s Hurricane Basin, the Maroon and Castle Creek valleys and Pearl Pass.
“Another place where the average cross-country skier would come across a lot of avalanche chutes is Express Creek Road,” he said.
Nonetheless, Express Creek gets frequent use by skiers and snowshoers heading to the Markley and Goodwin-Green huts.
“Conundrum is a good place to stay out of when there’s high avalanche danger,” Swersky added.
Since the winter of 1990-91, avalanches in the Aspen vicinity have claimed at least 13 lives. Those fatal slides, gleaned from the archives of The Aspen Times with help from the Pitkin County coroner’s office, include:
* March 1991 ” Lynne Durr, a Castle Creek Valley resident, died in a massive slide that ripped down Leahy Peak near the Pine Creek Cookhouse. The slide was a natural avalanche, Swersky recalled. Ninety-eight percent of avalanche deaths, he said, result from a slide triggered by either the victim or someone in his or her vicinity. In Durr’s case, the heavy snow in the Castle Creek Valley, south of Aspen, apparently broke loose under its own weight, burying Durr as she skied along Castle Creek Road.
* June 1992 ” Brent and Marcellene Cameron of Colorado Springs were members of a party climbing South Maroon Peak when a late-season avalanche carried them down the mountain. They were in a narrow snow chute on the north face of the peak when a slab broke loose and slid an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 feet. The two weren’t buried, but were killed by the impact of falling against the rocks.
* February 1995 ” Doug Hamilton, 26, of Ohio was buried in his tepee in the Conundrum Valley. His body was recovered days later, still in his tepee, beneath 8 feet of snow.
* January 1996 ” David Koztoski, 38, of Aspen, snowmobiled with a companion into McFarlane’s Bowl, located off Richmond Ridge on the back of Aspen Mountain, to ski powder. Both were experienced backcountry skiers and were wearing avalanche beacons, according to news reports. Koztoski was caught in a slide; his body was found the next day, about 600 yards down the bowl.
* January 1996 ” Anton Valerin, a native of Romania residing in Denver, was killed from injuries he suffered in a slide down Pyramid Peak while climbing the fourteener with three companions.
* January 1999 ” Larry “Lonnie” Moore, 45, of Missouri Heights was skiing in the backcountry below Steeplechase at Aspen Highlands with a companion when he was killed in an avalanche. Both men were described as veteran backcountry skiers, but the avalanche rating at the time was high. Rescuers who retrieved his body the next day had to “bomb their way out” of the terrain, using explosives to trigger additional slides and make their own passage safe for travel.
* January 2000 ” Carl “Chip” Johnson, 37, of Snowmass Village, died skiing in a narrow gulch in Hurricane Basin, above Little Annie Road on the back of Aspen Mountain. An experienced backcountry skier, he was skiing alone when the snowpack gave way. He was found buried in 6 feet of snow at the bottom of the gulch.
* March 2000 ” Aspenites John Roberts, 30, and Michael Hanrahan, 49, part of an experienced group of six skiers, were killed in a slab avalanche in Tonar Bowl above the Maroon Creek Valley. Traumatic injuries caused their deaths.
* February 2002 ” Robert Littlewood, 67, of Park City, Utah, died in what was more anomaly than avalanche, though he was asphyxiated in loose snow. He was skiing at Aspen Highlands when he took an apparently nasty fall that left him incapacitated. He slid out of bounds and the small amount of snow that slid with him left him buried and unable to breath. Had he not been otherwise injured, Littlewood could have sat up and brushed off the snow, a resort spokesman noted at the time.
* March 2002 ” Two individuals were killed in separate avalanches on the same day ” one just out of bounds on Aspen Mountain and the other near the Lindley Hut, south of Ashcroft.
James Ellis, 63, of Fort Collins, was one of a party of 10 people staying at the hut. He was out skiing on a moderate slope when the terrain above him broke loose. The avalanche swept him into a tree, killing him, and injured two of his companions.
Dana Martino-Spencer, 39, of Chicago, ventured through a backcountry gate on Aspen Mountain. Described as a frequent Aspen visitor and expert skier, she was alone when she triggered a soft-slab avalanche in a steep gully below Pandora’s Box and suffocated under 5 feet of snow.
Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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