Searchers piece together details of avalanche deaths
and Brent Gardner-Smith
More information has been released about two tragic deaths in two separate avalanches in the Aspen backcountry on Thursday.
The 63-year-old man killed by a snowslide near the Lindley Hut above the Ashcroft valley has been identified as James Ellis of Fort Collins.
And Chicago resident Dana Martino-Spencer, 39, was killed in an avalanche Thursday afternoon in a gully on Richmond Ridge, just outside the boundary of the Aspen Mountain ski area.
Chicagoan skied into ‘terrain trap’
Martino-Spencer was last seen around 2:30 p.m. Thursday as she left the ski area through a Forest Service backcountry access gate located on the east side of the ski area’s summit.
The gate was clearly marked with warnings about danger in the backcountry. Signs at the access gates also remind skiers that “this is your decision point.”
Even though her skiing companion decided not to go through the gate, Martino-Spencer, described as a frequent Aspen visitor and an expert skier, elected to ski the backcountry alone.
Martino-Spencer’s husband and a friend reported her overdue to the Aspen Skiing Co. nearly two hours later. The Skico notified the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which then requested that the Aspen Mountain ski patrol conduct a search for the missing skier.
Ski patrollers surmised that the skier might have skied an area just east of the Walsh’s area known as Pandora’s Box, which is frequently skied but not controlled by the patrol. They also thought she may have skied below Loushin’s Road, which is an extension of the road at the bottom of Walsh’s shown on the trail map as Lud’s Lane.
At about 5:15 p.m., a patroller on a snowmobile went up Loushin’s Road and found a fresh set of ski tracks coming out of Pandora’s, crossing the road and heading down toward the valley floor.
“The victim’s track was easy to follow as it was the only track continuing below the road,” states a report on the incident by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Ray Peritz, the president of Mountain Rescue-Aspen, said the terrain just below the road looked inviting.
“There was some nice terrain,” Peritz said. “It was not very steep and not filled with aspen trees. There were some big pine trees and open terrain. It was a suckhole – something nice and gentle that lures you in.”
According to the CAIC report, “the woman continued down into a narrowing gully. As she attempted to traverse from one side of the gully to the other she triggered a soft-slab avalanche and was buried. The avalanche likely occurred before 3 p.m. She was found under five feet of snow by probers at 7:15 p.m.” According to the Pitkin County coroner, the cause of death was suffocation.
The CAIC report noted that the avalanche released at about 9,800 feet and fell 200 vertical feet on the northeast side of a steep gully which was described as a “terrain trap.”
Considering the avalanche danger in the gully and the onset of darkness, the three ski patrollers who found Martino-Spencer and confirmed that she was dead elected to climb the 700 to 800 feet up and out of the gully. A body recovery operation with Mountain Rescue-Aspen was set for Friday morning.
After a check of the slope stability by the ski patrol on Friday, a 10-member Mountain Rescue crew went sideslipping and snowplowing down the east face of the gully to reach Martino-Spencer’s body, which was secured in a rescue sled, pulled up to the road with a rope system and then taken off the mountain in a toboggan by the patrol.
Lindley group was digging snow pit
The avalanche near the Lindley Hut was equally as tragic, as a group was hit by an avalanche from above while digging a snow pit to determine the snow safety level.
James Ellis was part of a10-member group that had spent Wednesday night at the Lindley Hut and was planning to spend Thursday night there as well.
The group was out skiing a moderate, 22-degree slope east of the hut. “The problem was that steeper terrain was directly above them,” the CAIC incident report noted. “After several runs one member of the group moved a little higher up to dig a snow pit. While digging the pit a portion of the slope to the skier’s right released, but then the slope above them released. They likely triggered the avalanche from below.”
The avalanche was estimated to be between 600 and 800 feet wide and ran 300 to 400 feet down the slope.
James Ellis was swept down the slope and into a tree. Two other members of the party were injured. Jesse Logan, 58, of Logan, Utah, injured his knee, and Jill Baron, 47, of Fort Collins suffered an ankle injury.
Dennis Ojima, a member of the ski party, told KWGN-TV in Denver that the group carried avalanche beacons, snow-probe poles and shovels on the trip. He said he was tossed at least 300 feet by the avalanche.
“It just knocked me over, and then I felt like I was in a washing machine, just tumbled around,” Ojima said. “I instinctively felt my way up. It happened to be in the right direction.”
Companions dug for nearly 30 minutes before finding Ellis buried under three feet of snow. A member of the party skied to the Pine Creek Cookhouse around 1:45 p.m. to call for help while others sought to resuscitate Ellis.
Members of Mountain Rescue-Aspen and West Eagle Search and Rescue and employees of the Cookhouse, 22 in all, brought the group out by snowmobile around 9 p.m., and Ellis’ body was brought out by 11 p.m.
Peritz said local guides have told him the backcountry is still very unstable. “The basic word from them is ‘stay out and wait until late spring,'” Peritz said. For information on local avalanche conditions, call the Forest Service hot line at 920-1664.
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