Two Aspenites die in avalanche | AspenTimes.com
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Two Aspenites die in avalanche

Scott Condon and Tim Mutrie

The two men who were killed Friday in an avalanche south of Aspen Highlands were identified Sunday as Michael Hanrahan, 49, and John Roberts, 30, both of Aspen.

The bodies of the men were recovered Saturday in an obscure gully that leads into Tonar Bowl, one of several avalanche-prone areas located in the backcountry outside of the Highlands ski area.

The identities of the men were withheld until yesterday, after family members had been notified. They were the seventh and eighth victims of avalanches in Colorado this winter.

Another local man, Carl “Chip” Johnson of Snowmass Village, was killed in an avalanche in January while skiing Hurricane Gulch on the back of Aspen Mountain.

Hanrahan and Roberts were killed from injuries sustained in what’s known as a hard-slab avalanche, according to authorities.

Roberts, a longtime Aspen resident, was a line cook at The Little Nell, and an ultra-marathoner who was well-seasoned in the backcountry.

Hanrahan, Roberts and four friends departed the Aspen Highlands ski area through a backcountry gate, then hiked up the Highland ridge to access the Tonar Bowl area, according to authorities. Leaving the ski area through the gate is legal and popular among backcountry travelers.

Tonar Bowl, located in National Forest, is a little-used area located three drainages south of Maroon Bowl, beyond Desolation Row and Little Wasatch. It’s about twice the size of Highland Bowl and riddled with terrain features.

Hanrahan, Roberts and the others all carried avalanche beacons and shovels, according to Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Grady. The four skiers, Hanrahan and Roberts included, along with two snowboarders were regarded as a “tight group,” and experienced in the backcountry.

The hard-slab avalanche in upper Tonar Bowl released above timberline, on a northwest aspect, at about noon Friday.

“We’re not real sure what triggered the slide – all we know is that it slid,” said Deputy Joe Bauer, who served as “incident commander” in the rescue/recovery effort. “From what we were told by the witnesses, [Roberts] was at the top of the face and [Hanrahan] was down toward the bottom, as far as the spacing of the group went. The slide started up in the top area, and [Roberts] was the top skier in that area, but we don’t know what triggered it based on what the witnesses said.

“The whole group was all in the same general area of the slide,” Bauer continued. “The survivors were just lucky that it missed them – that’s as simple as I can put it.”

Names of the other members of the party were not released. Recovering the victims Immediately after the avalanche, one member of the party skied down to Maroon Creek Road to call for help from T Lazy 7 Ranch. The slide was reported to the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol and sheriff’s office at 12:49 p.m.

Meanwhile, the three remaining survivors used their beacons to locate the victims and dig them out from under two to three feet of debris.

“Both victims had received nonsurvivable injuries,” said a statement from the sheriff’s office.

“They were dead at that time,” Bauer said. An official cause of death for the men has not yet been determined, he added.

Ski patrollers were asked by the sheriff Friday to ski to the site and confirm the fatalities.

“When they got into it, the first wave of the storm hit,” said Grady. It brought heavy snow, high winds and low visibility, forcing authorities to delay recovery of the bodies.

“You get the confirmation and you’re out of there,” Grady said.

Nevertheless, authorities had to verbally warn several of the victims’ friends, who were anxious to recover the bodies, not to attempt any sort of unauthorized recovery Friday.

The patrol left six-foot probe poles next to the bodies so they could be found Saturday. The recovery effort was led by 25 members of Mountain Rescue Aspen, assisted by two members of the Highlands patrol. Employees of T Lazy 7 Ranch, which was used as a staging area, and sheriff’s office personnel were also involved.

Rescue teams had to work cautiously because of continued avalanche danger. “Tonar Bowl and [the] avalanche path had reloaded with snow overnight, brought by recent storms and high wind,” said the sheriff’s office.

“By the time it was reported, it was getting late in the day [Friday],” said Debbie Kelly, president of Mountain Rescue. “And on Saturday, the Highlands patrol decided it was too risky to come in from above, so the only safe way to get up there was to hike in from below.”

“[Saturday] was not a great day for a body recovery,” Bauer added. “There was a lot concern for the safety of the rescuers. But Mountain Rescue Aspen did a fabulous job.”

The recovery team safely recovered the bodies without triggering any more slides. `No safe spot’ Rescue personnel estimated the avalanche to be 75 yards wide and up to 400 yards long. The fracture line ranged from two- to 12-feet deep, according to reports. In the lower sections of the avalanche, the entire snowpack slid, a phenomenon known as a “ground avalanche.”

One local backcountry user, who asked not to be named, said he and a partner skied a different section of Tonar Bowl about 15 minutes before the slide caught Roberts and Hanrahan Friday.

“We skied it three times last week, and they were the fourth group to go back there,” he said. “They knew what they were doing as well as anybody, it was a tight group. The one thing was the wind, the wind was loading the shit out of it all night.

“I’ll never ski it again,” he continued. “There’s no safe spot. There’s a point when you’re in it and you can’t get out of it. It starts out steep and gets steeper – it rolls over. It’s forty-five degrees, but there are pitches in there that are close to fifty degrees. The walls of the gully start closing in around you and there’s no other place to go but through the narrow toilet bowl at the bottom.”

He estimated the pitch to be approximately 2,000 vertical feet.

“We had been looking at this bowl all year long, and the other day we decided it was skiable,” the skier said. “We skied a northern aspect and got bottomless turns the whole way down; we were high-fiving each other like nobody’s business until we got to T Lazy 7. They had heard about it on the radio and they were like, `Were you guys in the group?’ “

Mountain Rescue’s Kelly explained that Tonar Bowl is aptly named.

“Tonar, I believe, is a short version of totally gnarly,” she said. “It’s a real uneven area, with lots of rocky outcroppings, cliff bands and gullies, with very varied snow depths. They were just in one of many gullies in there that let go. It pretty much pulled out the whole gully, but it didn’t propagate slides in the other areas of the bowl.”

In hard-slab avalanches, large blocks of cohesive snow that weigh hundreds or even thousands of pounds break free and slide down a steep slope, according to Knox Williams, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Those blocks move at speeds of up to 70 mph.

People caught in that type of avalanche cannot typically “swim” through it like sometimes occurs when the debris is loose, Williams said.

“It’s essentially like a mountaineering fall,” he said.

It’s usually trauma from the fall rather than suffocation that kills victims of hard-slab avalanches, said Williams.

CAIC forecaster Nick Logan said Sunday that about a half-dozen other avalanches were reported around the state on Friday, including two natural releases in the San Juan range, one controlled release at Snowmass and another, cornice-triggered slide on Mt. Owen near Crested Butte.

“It’s not what we would consider an avalanche cycle by any means, but it’s enough to let us know that triggered avalanches are possible and that’s what we’re forecasting for,” Logan said.

“What we’re seeing now is really a holdover from the snowpack we had earlier in the season,” Logan added. “In some areas, where there have been no avalanches yet, some of these weak layers are finally reaching their stress point, and we might see more of that with the next storm cycle we’re expecting.”

Hard-slab avalanches could pose a threat well into spring because of conditions that have developed this winter, said the CAIC’s Williams.

This season was ripe for disaster right from the start. Heavy snowfall in October was followed by drought in November and December. The bottom snow layer rotted before more stable layers formed on top of it, Williams explained.

That rotten layer of “sugar snow” at the ground level gives way and, in the case of hard-slab avalanches, blocks of more cohesive upper layers are pulled down a steep slope by gravity.

“It doesn’t have to be the first people in there to trigger a slide,” said Williams. Several areas on a slope can be weakened over time and eventually linked together in a process he called progressive failure. The result can be catastrophic.

If Colorado’s mountains receive a series of late-winter and spring snowstorms, hard-slab avalanches could be common due to that rotten ground layer of sugar snow, Williams said.

“Without storms, we’re not going to have a big problem,” he said.


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