Woman survives brush with death in backcountry slide
April 4, 2002
A Snowmass Village woman was nearly swept away by an avalanche Tuesday in the Five Fingers area south of Highland Bowl.
Jane Somerville was backcountry skiing with four friends when she got caught in a slide on a steep slope, lost a ski and nearly lost her life. A narrative of the harrowing experience – written by Somerville and her boyfriend, Adam Dennis, who was also on the trip – was used by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in its entirety Wednesday.
“It is a story honestly written and has far more impact than the daily bulletins coming from the CAIC that mention a considerable avalanche danger,” wrote avalanche information center director Knox Williams.
Somerville, 25, said she shared her story because it may help save someone else’s life. She was uninjured in the slide. She said the members of her group realize they made mistakes that almost had tragic consequences.
Somerville and Dennis wrote that it was their intention to encourage people to think carefully and educate themselves before heading into the backcountry.
They wrote that their group departed into the backcountry from the top of Highland Bowl and, despite the reservations of some, kept hiking while the sun baked the snow. Dennis, 29, said he is experienced in the backcountry and sought information before the trip, but still made mistakes that were much more evident after the fact.
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The group reached the face they initially planned to ski at about 11 a.m., but ultimately decided to hike further and ski a different aspect.
“We began our descent around 11:45 a.m. One by one we took turns skiing high near the ridgeline, not near the gully,” Somerville and Dennis wrote. “Two skiers skied the face 20 turns along the ridgeline and into our safety zone.
“The snow had seemed very sticky at top. Jane yelled this to me. She was worried. We encouraged her. She is a tremendous skier. We told her to keep going.
“The two skiers who had made it over the face yelled to us about loose snow beneath me. Jane then proceeded to ski to me. She stopped and I told her to follow the boys’ tracks to the high ridgeline. They had skied between two small trees on the steepest part of the face. Jane turned into these tracks. I stood parallel to her in a safe zone watching.
“This is when all hell broke loose.
“Jane made a turn and a 12-15 foot slide released. She rode the blocks for about 10 feet. It began to engulf her, blocks went on both sides of her and over her. I was standing right on the crown and watching my loved one start a ride down a 4,000-foot face.”
Dennis said he nearly fell among all the exposed rock when he attempted to grab Somerville.
“At this point, Jane had turned into the mountain,” their narrative continued. “She pointed her skis left and was able to see what looked like the edge of the avalanche. She was right and skied toward it.
“While trying to do this one of her skis was ripped off of her. I regained my balance ready to race after the slide and Jane. When I looked down she was standing there on her uphill ski, crying and screaming my name.
“The slide enlarged to about 150 yards wide and went a good 3,500 feet. We watched it funnel down into Conundrum. Jane had watched her ski descend to the bottom. She was hysterical. She had thought that when the ski snapped off, she was going with it.”
The two skiers in the safe zone continued their descent and found Somerville’s ski in the valley floor. The other skiers decided to hike out.
“We had to climb about 500 feet to the ridgeline, post-holeing the whole way,” their narrative said. “On the way up we heard another whuumpf. We were so frightened during this climb. We prayed that we wouldn’t trigger another slide. Total hours back to the top of Highland Bowl between 5 and 6.”
Dennis wrote that the group was “very foolish” and learned a lesson the hard way. They encouraged everyone to make their own decisions about backcountry travel.
Their experience was witnessed and verified by members of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol.
“Please, everyone make your own decisions,” Somerville and Dennis wrote on the CAIC Web site. “Be smart. Be safe. We now know that any risk is too great of a risk when your beautiful life is involved.”
People considering backcountry travel can learn more about conditions at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center Web site at: http://geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche.