Slides claimed 747 pilot, scientist
March 19, 2002
The two fatal avalanches in the Aspen area last Thursday killed a United Airlines pilot and a senior research scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Dana Martino Spencer, who died in an avalanche below Loushin’s Road in the Pandora’s area just outside the Aspen Mountain ski area, was a first officer flying international routes in a 747. She was 39.
“There aren’t many her age flying 747s,” said John Proko, a family friend from Kenosha, Wisc. “She was at the peak of her life.”
Martino Spencer worked her way up the aviation ladder, first taking flying lessons right out of high school. She eventually became a captain with United flying 737s out of Chicago and then made the jump to the cockpit of the 747.
“She was extremely focused,” said her mother, Phyllis Martino, also of Kenosha.
James E. Ellis, who died on Thursday in an avalanche near the Lindley Hut 15 miles from Aspen, was a widely respected ecologist with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at CSU. He was 63.
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“He was an amazing scientist,” said Jill Baron, a CSU colleague of Ellis’ who was on the hut trip and was slightly injured in the avalanche. “We are in a field, ecosystem science that is becoming more and more important, and Jim pioneered much of that. And he had just gotten these fabulous grants, and he was having the time of his life.”
Both Ellis and Martino Spencer, whose first name is pronounced “Donna,” were on skiing trips with friends and family.
Martino Spencer’s parents, Phyllis and Daniel Martino, and her husband, Steven L. Spencer, were in Aspen last week as part of a family and friends ski trip.
The group of 12 was staying at the Little Nell hotel, and most of them had skied with Martino Spencer on Aspen Mountain on Thursday.
“She was pretty much the leader,” said Proko. “She wanted to do a little bit on her own and find some powder where nobody else had skied.”
That brought Martino Spencer and another strong skier, Candy Rusch, to the backcountry access gate that leads to the Pandora’s area. Neither of them was familiar with the terrain beyond the gate, but they saw two other skiers pass through it.
Rusch decided not to go, but Martino Spencer went into the backcountry alone and ended up skiing into a steep gully below Loushin’s Road, where she was trapped in an avalanche.
She was expected to return to the Little Nell by 4 p.m., as she and her husband were expecting guests at the condo they owned in Frisco, CO. They were planning to leave Aspen that night.
When she did not return to the hotel, she was reported missing, and a search was conducted by the ski patrol under the auspices of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Martino Spencer was known for being well prepared, and on that day she was wearing a helmet, had on an extra layer of clothing and was carrying food, water and a cell phone. She was an athletic, energetic woman who had started skiing in Wisconsin when she was 8.
“We just knew she was going to be OK,” said her mother, who described the scene in their Little Nell hotel room where the entire group of family and friends was waiting for word.
“When I saw the sheriff come in, I got up off my chair,” she said. “We just knew Dana was going to be OK. But he said, ‘I have some news for you. We found Dana. She’s dead.’ We were not expecting that; we were like wounded animals.”
Earlier in the day, Ellis’ family and friends had also been traumatized by the events of the day.
Ellis had organized the hut trip for his family, friends and colleagues from the College of Natural Resources at CSU. They were to spend almost a week at the Lindley Hut, four miles above the historic town site of Ashcroft.
The group included his wife, Cathy Galvin, who is an ecological anthropologist at CSU; his two young sons, Ian, 15, and Stefan, 11; and his older son, Eric Ellis, who had joined the group for two days and then left.
Also on the trip were two colleagues from the CSU Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Baron and her husband, Dennis Ojima, and their two children, Kyle, 14 and Claire, 17.
Another scientist who had once worked at CSU, Jesse Logan of Logan, Utah, and his wife, Catherine Primbs, were also on the trip, which started Sunday, March 10, and was to end on Friday, March 15.
From the start of the trip, the group was very aware and highly concerned about avalanches. “The road coming in was not safe,” said Baron. “There was a slide that we crossed over before we went up the trail.”
On Thursday afternoon, most of the group, save for three of the children who were in the hut, went out skiing on gentle terrain a half-mile east of the hut. “Jesse dug a pit before we skied in the morning,” Baron said. “We skied until 1:30 p.m. and went up a little higher on the slope to dig another pit. Then it slid.”
The group could see a ridge above them, but it did not appear to be a threat to the gentle slope where the group was skiing. “It wasn’t steep, and there were trees,” said Baron of the terrain they were on. But a fracture line apparently migrated up the slope and then snow came tumbling down on the group.
Ellis, Baron, Ojima and Logan were all caught in the slide, and Ellis was pushed forcefully into a tree. His head was badly bruised, and when he was dug out by his companions, they tried to revive him but could not.
One member of the group skied out to call for help, and the group was eventually brought out Thursday night by rescuers on snowmobiles.
On Monday, at the Natural Resources Lab, the loss of James Ellis was deeply felt.
“He was a remarkable individual,” said Dr. Mike Coughenour, a fellow senior research scientist who had known Ellis for 25 years. “It sounds like a cliche, but he was a gentleman and a scholar.
“He was very good at managing and conceptualizing large, complex research projects. He was a mentor to a lot of students and post-doctoral scientists. He worked in a number of different countries around the world and was very much a statesman and a diplomat.”
Baron said Ellis’ loss would be felt not only at CSU and in the ecology field, but around the world, as Ellis worked with many communities in Africa, Asia and Australia on ecosystem ecology.
“There were many communities in developing countries that looked to him for solutions,” Baron said.