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Powder turns to `wall of snow’

Tim Mutrie

“John [Roberts] just kind of skied in and he wasn’t in more than half a turn, and that’s when it broke on him,” said local Stephen Parziale, one of the six-man party that was caught in an avalanche in Tonar Bowl Friday.

“The avalanche broke above me, probably about 20 yards or so, and I grabbed onto a rock and it was just big enough for the avalanche to go over me,” he continued. “The avalanche was maybe 20 yards wide above me, but on the way down, it ripped everything out.”

Two of the skiers in the party, Aspenites John Roberts, 30, and Mike Hanrahan, 49, couldn’t evade the huge hard-slab avalanche and sustained fatal injuries. Both men had lived in Aspen for more than a decade and were regarded as very experienced backcountry skiers.

“It’s a tough thing to have to go through,” said local Rick Wilder, another member of the ski touring party who was a close friend and frequent ski partner with Roberts and Hanrahan. “[The danger] is always in the back of your mind – if you take it seriously, and we do – that this probably will and can happen.”

Yesterday, Wilder, Parziale and others affected by the tragedy gathered in Roberts’ Aspen apartment, trying to come to terms with the loss. Also on hand was friend Jay Fletcher and two of Roberts’ siblings – Andy, of Nantucket, Mass. and Jim, of Vermont.

“It comes in waves,” Parziale said. “You’re OK as long as you’re doing something, but it’s a loss that you can’t measure.”

“It was just something that couldn’t be calculated; John took exactly the same line that everybody else had been on,” said Wilder.

The group skiing Tonar Bowl that day – Roberts, Hanrahan, Wilder, Parziale and locals Justin Doty and Brian Porter – were prepared for backcountry travel. They carried beacons, probe poles and shovels. And they set out for Tonar, having skied other nearby backcountry areas on the west side of Aspen Highlands, such as Maroon Bowl, already this season.

Tonar Bowl, located in National Forest, is a situated three drainages south of Maroon Bowl, beyond Desolation Row and Little Wasatch. With a 40- to 50-degree pitch and some 2,000 vertical feet in length, it’s about twice the size of Highland Bowl, and riddled with various terrain features.

“[Justin Doty] was all the way down, and Mike [Hanrahan] went second,” Parziale recalled. “And we’re not sure where Mike stopped, but I have a feeling he stopped behind something he considered safe, but with the magnitude of that slide, now I’m not sure.

“Justin got down into the flats – all the way down,” he continued. “Everyone needed to get to that point, that’s protocol: You ski all the way down so that you’re not putting yourself or others in any kind of risk.

“I was still at the top along with Rick [Wilder] and Brian [Porter] and John [Roberts], and then Rick went, and on his way down he tried to find Mike, because we weren’t sure where he was; we couldn’t see him.”

After Rick Wilder was nearing the flats at the bottom of the bowl, “I went in,” Parziale said, “and went into the skier’s left and got into a safe zone. Then we sent Brian down and he pulled in behind a really big cliff wall – he was going to take some pictures of John and I.”

Soon after, John Roberts entered the bowl, on the same aspect as the others, and the slab broke.

“When the avalanche broke,” Wilder said, “I looked over my shoulder and saw a wall of snow coming, but I was pretty much at the bottom of the run already.”

The avalanche poured over Parziale and Brian Porter, who were tucked safely behind rocks, but it consumed Roberts and Hanrahan.

Following the slide, Doty boarded down to Maroon Creek Road to alert authorities, while Wilder, Parziale and Porter used beacons to locate their friends under two to three feet of debris. But due to the size and nature of the slide, nothing could be done for the two men.


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