Snowshoers escape Summit avalanche |

Snowshoers escape Summit avalanche

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Standing at the staging area at the Peru Creek Trail head Friday, Summit Search and Rescue Group team leader Glenn Kraatz tries to pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche that partially buried a hiker. (Bob Berwyn/Summit Daily News)

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. ” Two backcountry travelers escaped unharmed from an avalanche Friday in the backcountry near Chihuahua Lake, high in the Peru Creek drainage between Keystone and Montezuma.

Dwight Sunwall, of Castle Rock, and Sarah Thompson, of Boulder, were snowshoeing along a ridge near Lenawee Peak after starting their hike at the Peru Creek Trailhead. Thompson inadvertently broke off a section of cornice that was as “big as a small bus,” according to Loveland ski patroller Mike Scott, one of the first rescuers to reach the scene.

The chunk of cornice triggered the slide on the steep slope below. According to Sunwall, the pair was 20 feet away from the edge of the cornice.

“We knew there were big cornices up there,” Sunwall said.

After checking avalanche conditions, the duo changed their hiking plans to avoid undue exposure, he said.

When Thompson fell, Sunwall said he stepped aside as yet another section of the cornice fell away.

Sunwall called 911 from the ridgeline, then started looking for an alternate route to get down to his hiking partner below.

The Summit Search and Rescue Group, as well as ski patrollers from A-Basin and Loveland responded to the accident at about 12:30 p.m. The teams deployed dogs and RECCO units to help with the search.

The first rescuers on the scene extricated Thompson from the slide debris. She was transported to the Summit Medical Center via helicopter. Scott said Thompsin was in good shape, with no apparent injuries. Scott estimated that the slide ran about 1,000 vertical feet.

According to search and rescue site commander Joe Ben Slivka, neither was wearing an avalanche beacon. Slivka urged backcountry travelers to be prepared with appropriate gear, including beacons, shovels and probes.

“You need to be able to help your friends if something happens,” Slivka said.

Companion rescue offers the best chance for surviving an avalanche, given that few people survive longer than 30 minutes when completely buried.

According to rescuers reporting from the scene, the slide was about 100 to 200 feet wide and ran several hundred yards down the slope. The debris field ended up piling onto the surface of a frozen lake.

Rescue workers approached the scene cautiously, concerned about the danger of additional avalanches in the area.

There was initial confusion about the location of Sunwall, with some reports indicating a second slide. As a result, several search teams were deployed into the area from the Peru Creek trail head.

Slivka said backcountry travelers shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by warm, sunny weather.

“Summit County slides late,” Slivka said. With this winter1s deep snowpack and lingering cold temperatures, the avalanche danger hasn’t abated much.

Even when warmer weather arrives, Slivka said new danger lurk. Water in the snowpack can lubricate layers, leading to easily triggered slides, he said.

Just as during the rest of the winter, backcountry travelers need to be tuned in to conditions. A hard freeze at night can solidify spring snow, making travel safe, at least early in the morning. But intense sunshine can melt the stable bonds quickly.

Guides and avalanche experts recommend an early morning start for spring mountaineering. Skiers, hikers and climbers should be well of the mountain before the snowpack deteriorates, Slivka said.

“The most important thing we can tell people is to know when to bail out,” Slivka said.

Even if you’ve worked hard to gain elevation, you need to use good judgment and retreat from a chosen line if the snowpack starts to become unstable, he concluded.

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