Report: Aspen men ski through avalanche debris before deadly slide
Two Aspen-area men who died in an avalanche near Crested Butte on Feb. 16 skied through debris of two recent slides in Brush Creek Valley shortly before triggering one themselves, according to a report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Owen Green, 27, of Aspen, and Michael Goerne, 37, of Carbondale, departed the Brush Creek trailhead at about 6:30 a.m. that Saturday on a route that parallels part of the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse course. The men were registered to participate in the backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen in March.
While the fatal slide wasn’t witnessed, investigators determined it happened between 8:39 and 8:49 a.m. based on data from a satellite-tracking device carried by one of the men, said the report by Ben Pritchett, a forecaster with CAIC. The slide occurred as a storm was winding down and the snowpack was unstable. There was an avalanche warning the day before the accident. CAIC rated avalanche conditions for the Gunnison zone as “considerable” on Feb. 16, down from “high” the day before. A “considerable” rating is level three of five.
Despite the downgrade, CAIC sent out an avalanche advisory for Feb. 16 that warned avalanche conditions would remain dangerous in many places in Colorado. Avalanche activity was high in the Crested Butte area Feb. 14 and 15.
“The skiers skied past four avalanches and crossed over the debris of two slides before reaching the slope they triggered,” Pritchett’s report said. “They had to break trail through the large accumulation of dense snow and wind drifts left by the recently multi-day storm.”
As with other reports filed by CAIC after fatal avalanches, Pritchett stressed the organization’s goal was to share information to help other backcountry adventurers avoid the same fate, not to pick apart the decisions of the two victims. Green and Goerne aren’t named in the report.
“Unfortunately both Skier 1 and 2 were caught in the same avalanche,” the report said. “A common approach to reduce risk when crossing avalanche paths is to cross one at a time. If only one of the two skiers were caught and buried, the other may have been able to perform a successful companion rescue, turning a horrible tragedy into a near miss. Crossing the slope one at a time would have likely led to at least one of the skiers surviving this accident.”
Green and Goerne were found with skins on their skis and their skis still attached to their boots, so it appears they were skinning up a slope in an area known as Death Pass when they triggered the slide. The avalanche occurred on a slope with a southeasterly aspect and an elevation of 9,350 feet.
“The avalanche broke approximately 2 to 3 feet deep, 200 feet wide and ran 120 vertical feet,” the report said.
The men were carried down an open slope of about 37 degrees. The slide filled the narrow valley floor with as much as 15 feet of debris. The men were found on either side of that main channel, in about 5 feet of debris, according to the report.
The girlfriend of one of the men reported the pair overdue to the Mount Crested Butte Police Department at 8 p.m. that evening. The travel log from the satellite-tracking device was provided to rescuers.
“Rescuers considered the possibility of an avalanche, or that Skier 1 and 2 were injured and moving around in a small area,” the report said. “Five rescuers departed around 10 p.m. on snowmobiles, with a planned route to avoid all avalanche terrain.
“Rescuers followed the skiers’ track until it disappeared into avalanche debris in the Death Pass corridor,” the report continued. “There was no track exiting the debris. Rescuers detected a faint signal from an avalanche transceiver, but it was too dangerous to conduct a further search of the avalanche debris at night.”
Rescuers and investigators returned to the scene the next day with helicopter support from Care Flight. Green and Goerne were found at 1 p.m. using transceivers and probes, the report said.
News of the fatal slide hit the Roaring Fork Valley hard. The men were well known for extensive work with high school and club lacrosse teams. Goerne founded Aspen High School’s lacrosse club team in 2006.
Goerne was the business manager for the law offices of Balcomb & Green in Glenwood Springs. Green worked in group sales for Snowmass Tourism.
Three of the five people killed in avalanches in Colorado this winter have been from the Roaring Fork Valley. Aaron Trook, 48, of Aspen, was killed in a slide Jan. 21 on Green Mountain, southwest of Aspen, while on an outing at the Markley Hut.
An avalanche also killed Peter Marshall near Red Mountain Pass on Jan. 5 and Salvador Garcia-Atance on Feb. 19 near Telluride.
The avalanche report and daily updates on conditions can be found at https://avalanche.state.co.us.
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Natalie Tsevdos, who is in charge of inspecting roughly 116 food establishments located in the city of Aspen, said violations typically are corrected on-site.