Summit Co avalanche victim’s body recovered
SILVERTHORNE — The Summit County Rescue Group on Friday launched a recovery mission to retrieve the body of a skier who was killed in an avalanche on Red Peak on Wednesday afternoon.
At about 1:40 p.m. Wednesday, the rescue group was informed of a skier-triggered avalanche on Red Peak, in the Gore Range north of Silverthorne, after the activation of a personal emergency beacon. Two of three men in the group avoided the slide, but the third man was carried about 1,800 feet down the mountain and sustained fatal injuries, according to representatives from the rescue group.
The rescue group made the decision not to mount a recovery mission Wednesday or Thursday because of weather constraints and heightened avalanche risk, instead choosing to take advantage of better conditions Friday. Mission coordinators made the call early to give the recovery team as much time as possible for the operation.
“We had several of our mission coordinators having discussion over the last 24 hours about everything from the weather, the avalanche conditions, whether a helicopter operation would be a reasonable thing to do — recognizing what we’re dealing with right now with the new coronavirus — and what their protocols are,” said Charles Pitman, spokesperson for the Summit County Rescue Group. “But we really wanted to get it done (Friday) because of the potential of more weather coming in the next couple days. We had to make a push to get this behind us.”
Pitman said mission coordinators handpicked eight of the group’s “cream of the crop” rescuers to conduct the mission, taking on a two-pronged approach from land and air. At about 7:35 a.m., six rescue group members hit the Willow Brook Trailhead on skis along with a member of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. All rescuers who took part in the mission were part of a Colorado Rapid Avalanche Response team and were well-versed in navigating dangerous backcountry condition
At about 9 a.m., two other rescuers took off on the Lifeguard 2 helicopter with Flight for Life from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco. Pitman said the helicopter crew flew around the area trying to get a better understanding of avalanche conditions — checking for wind-loading in areas and new snow — before landing. Once it was determined to be safe enough to land, the two rescuers were dropped off just under a half-mile from the accident site. The rescuers located the victim at about 10:30 a.m.
“You never know if the helicopter is going to be able to fly for us,” Pitman said about why the group sent both air and ground teams. “They could have to go on an emergent run with a patient down to Denver, they could have a mechanical issue or the weather could change and all of a sudden they can’t fly. We always try to have a two-pronged approach so that if the helicopter can’t go for whatever reason, we have another team that’s already on the way with similar equipment. That way, we can continue the operation and complete it. … A good search and rescue team will always have contingencies.”
The rescue team that was flown in by helicopter was able to load the victim into a toboggan and return the half-mile to the landing zone. The victim then was flown back to St. Anthony in Frisco, and the helicopter later returned to pick up the two rescuers. Two members of the ground team also made it to the victim, while the rest of the team stopped short to wait for instructions. The entire ground team returned on skis.
While no large issues arose, it was a complicated mission, according to Pitman.
“It was certainly a successful operation,” Pitman said about the recovery of the body. “But it was definitely difficult snow conditions from where the helicopter landed to where they got to the victim. And then they had to turn around and do it in reverse with the carbon-fiber toboggan and the victim. It was definitely challenging to get that individual back to the helicopter.”
Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said the death is still under investigation, and the name of the victim hasn’t been released.
There have been at least 11 accidental human-caused avalanches around the state since April 8, according to Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The current avalanche danger in the northern mountains, which includes the Vail and Summit County region, is considerable and is expected to drop to moderate Saturday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The center publishes updated forecasts by 4:30 p.m. daily for the next two days.
And while many Coloradans are still heading to the backcountry to recreate, officials are asking residents to be particularly cautious to not put any extra pressure on search and rescue teams, first responders and health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Individuals heading to the backcountry to recreate should be sure to read the avalanche and weather forecasts, avoid traveling in high-risk and remote terrain and bring the proper equipment such as an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe.
Anyone lacking the experience or confidence to avoid dangerous avalanche conditions should stick to lower-angle slopes and more forgiving terrain, according to officials.
“This was really challenging,” Pitman said. “It’s always sad to deal with a situation like this. I know this individual had a lot of friends and family between the Front Range and here that he had done a lot with in the backcountry. Our thoughts are with all of them.”
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“There are parts of (Grizzly Creek Fire) that got 8 inches of snow in the recent weeks, but we still have activity on warm days,” a Forest Service spokesman said. “We’ll probably need some kind of season-ending weather event, like a big rain or snow to put it completely out.”