Powder tour client has close call
The conditions that created a fatal avalanche on the backside of Aspen Mountain last week also fueled a slide that briefly buried a customer on an official Aspen Skiing Co. powder tour.
A man escaped injury Sunday, Jan. 23 when an avalanche buried him for about three minutes in an area known as Black Diamond Bowl, according to Bob Perlmutter, manager of the Skico’s Aspen Mountain Powder Tour.
Perlmutter, who was working as a “tail guide” following behind customers that day, went to the spot where he last saw the man and began a beacon search, also known as a hasty search.
The avalanche had carried the man about 100 feet down a slope and buried him in “a few feet” of snow, Perlmutter estimated. The victim ended up with his feet higher than his head, but Perlmutter was able to dig enough snow away so he had air flowing in a few minutes.
“He said he was breathing throughout the entire time he was under the snow,” Perlmutter said.
The incident was reported to the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District, as the issuer of the guiding permit, and to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which shares avalanche risk information with backcountry travelers. The client’s name wasn’t released in the report to the Forest Service.
Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Aspen Ranger District, talked to Perlmutter yesterday about the incident. He said he couldn’t remember previous reports of an Aspen Mountain Powder Tour client getting caught in a slide. Any incident that is life-threatening or results in death must be reported by any guide service or permit holder in a national forest.
When asked if this incident was life-threatening, Stark replied, “Yeah, if they [the guides] weren’t there, it would have been.”
However, Stark didn’t see the need for the Skico to make any changes. “They were following good protocol,” he said.
That included using a lead guide and a “tailgunner” and having clients wear transceivers, which send and receive signals to help locate people caught in an avalanche. In this case, the guides also sent clients down the slope one at a time.
Black Diamond Bowl is on the Difficult Creek side of Richmond Ridge, about 2 1/2 miles south of the Silver Queen Gondola building atop Aspen Mountain.
The run where the slide occurred had a northeast aspect and had “no terrain as steep as Steeplechase [at Aspen Highlands] or Hyrup’s or Walsh’s [at Aspen Mountain],” according to Perlmutter. “Black Diamond Bowl historically I have only seen slide once previously in my fifteen years back there.”
He called the area that slid “a rare pocket of instability” in that bowl. Other areas within the Skico’s permit area for the powder tour are more susceptible to slides, he said.
The avalanche danger increased during the third week in January, when heavy snow started falling that previous Thursday and continued through the weekend. That powder fell on a snow layer that had rotted during a prolonged drought.
On Tuesday, Jan. 25, Carl “Chip” Johnson, 37, of Snowmass Village, was killed in an avalanche in Hurricane Gulch, about 3 miles south of the gondola building and down the west side of the ridge. Johnson was skiing on his own and wasn’t part of an Aspen Mountain Powder Tour.
Perlmutter said there were 11 clients and two guides on the powder tour Jan. 23. The incident occurred on the second to last run of the day, at about 2 p.m.
Although the man was uninjured, he became chilled and sat out the last run in the Snowcat. Perlmutter said the client wasn’t visibly shaken by the ordeal.
“He was amazing. He was one cool dude,” Perlmutter said. “I knew that before. I know that doubly now.”
Perlmutter said he and other Skico officials analyzed the incident and determined no changes are necessary in operations. Safety is always “first and foremost,” he said.
The Forest Service’s Stark said reports of such incidents are especially important so the information can be shared with other backcountry travelers. The local Forest Service avalanche information hotline can be reached at 920-1664.
While new restaurants enter the Aspen scene, there are several spaces that will remain empty this winter. Meanwhile, the retail market remains extremely hot.