More details have emerged on the massive avalanche north of Silverton last week that caught two backcountry skiers and shut down Red Mountain Pass but miraculously caused no injuries.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Saturday released its full report on the incident, which occurred Feb. 13 in the Eagle avalanche path above U.S. Highway 550 between Silverton and Ouray.
That morning, five local backcountry skiers who had previously skied the area set out from Silverton to run Eagle path. They parked one car near the bottom of the path and took another vehicle to the upper parking area.
The group started their ascent around 10:30 a.m., and within an hour had reached the top of the ridge at an elevation of approximately 12,400 feet. The plan, according to the report, was for each skier to make the run one at a time.
However, a review of the path’s snowpack in light of the unseasonable warm temperatures in Southwest Colorado hint at the dangers the skiers faced.
A four-day storm from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 dumped nearly 28 inches of snow in the San Juan Mountains near Red Mountain Pass. During that time, the Eagle path launched two slides.
“While the highway was closed on Feb. 1, the Eagle path avalanched naturally to the highway,” the report said. “The following day on Feb. 2, mitigation work triggered another avalanche that reached the highway.”
The following week, warm temperatures hit, with Feb. 12 the hottest recorded day of the 2015-16 season.
At the time the group of five skiers arrived at their summit on Feb. 13, temperatures at elevations of 12,000 ft.-plus were well above freezing.
When the first male skier to go was about three-quarters of the way down, the CAIC report said the second skier, a female, began her descent and triggered the avalanche on the third or fourth turn.
She attempted to ski out of the avalanche but failed and was pulled back into the gully. Fortunately, she remained on the surface of the slide as she was taken down the mountain.
“She recalled feeling airborne near the middle of the avalanche as the snow moved over a cliff,” the report said. “(Her) alpine touring bindings released about halfway down the avalanche. When the avalanche stopped, (she) was on the surface of the snow, head down-slope, uninjured.”
The male skier below was overtaken by the slide near the bottom of the run and told CAIC investigators it felt like “being hit by a truck” when the debris sent him tumbling head over heals. He, too, remained above the snowpack, relatively unharmed.
The avalanche continued down and buried Highway 550 in 12 to 15 feet of snow, stretching about 270 feet wide. In yet another stroke of luck that day, no people or vehicles were on the highway at the time of the slide.
The three skiers above rode down to their friends, who all then descended further toward the car at the lower parking area. The two skiers who were caught in the slide rode to Silverton, while the other three waited for response crews.
San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad wrote in his weekly blotter in the Silverton Standard & Miner that the “local backcountry skiers were extremely fortunate to survive a 1,500-foot ride on a snowy beast at over 60 mph.”
“The very large and wet avalanche required much equipment and over eight hours to remove from the roadway,” Conrad wrote. “The skiers were amazingly unharmed and can pick up their speeding citation at the Sheriff’s Office.”
Already this season, there have been 12 avalanche-related incidents in Colorado, resulting in the deaths of four people. There have been a total of 19 fatalities in avalanches in the United States so far this winter.