It was only a minor mistake, but one with deadly consequences, that caused an avalanche between Silverton and Red Mountain last week, killing a 27-year-old Durango man, according to a final report on the accident.
“It’s similar to getting lost in the big city,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “You do your research, you get disoriented and you end up in the wrong neighborhood.
“It doesn’t need to happen and it shouldn’t happen,” Greene said, “but sometimes it does.”
On Jan. 21, a human-triggered avalanche occurred in a steep gully in a popular backcountry skiing spot known as Sam’s Trees, on the south side of Red Mountain Pass near mile marker 77 on U.S. Highway 550.
The avalanche was recorded at 18 to 22 inches deep and 240 feet wide, and released the entire season’s snowpack built up in the gully, the CAIC said.
The avalanche resulted in the death of Abel Palmer.
According to a final report on the incident conducted by CAIC, Palmer and his skiing partner had looked up the avalanche danger that day, and specifically decided to avoid the steep gully in question.
But Palmer accidentally entered the gully, triggering the avalanche. Efforts to revive him, which included nearly three hours of CPR that lasted until after dark, were unsuccessful.
“It’s a reminder for people to be careful,” Greene said.
Palmer and his partner, identified in the report as “Skier 1,” had met at Purgatory Resort around 10 a.m. On the way up to Red Mountain Pass, about an hour drive, the pair checked the CAIC website for avalanche danger, settling on Sam’s Trees.
The two started up the mountain around 11:45 a.m., agreeing to avoid steep slopes.
According to the report, the mild and relatively dry winter these past few months had caused a weak layer of snow. A recent storm had dumped fresh snow on top of that weak layer, which Greene described as a “building on a weak foundation.”
As the pair skied down, Skier 1 triggered a small avalanche, without his knowledge. Palmer told Skier 1 of the slide, and the two met up to re-evaluate their plan.
While doing so, the pair specifically identified avoiding the gully.
But as they continued down the mountain, Palmer skied past Skier 1, accidentally drifting into the gully.
Skier 1 continued downhill, past Palmer, and then decided to slow down and look for Palmer. In doing so, snow starting flowing around Skier 1’s legs, pushing him 50 to 60 feet downhill.
Skier 1, however, was able to get out of this smaller slide. But before he could turn around and look for Palmer, he was hit with a second wave of an avalanche, which pushed him another 60 feet downhill.
Skier 1 was taken down the mountain head first, struggling to keep his head above the debris. He was able to catch onto a spruce tree as the snow rushed past, taking his skis and leaving him buried waist deep.
After the snow settled, Skier 1 called out for Palmer. Not hearing a response, he took out his phone to call 911 but had no service. The time, according to the report, was 1:20 p.m.
Skier 1 dug himself out of the snow and fired three rounds from a .22 caliber pistol in the air hoping to attract the attention of other skiers nearby. He then pulled out his search beacon and switched it into search mode, but it couldn’t find Palmer.
Skier 1 guessed Palmer was uphill from him. He climbed 30 feet before receiving a signal from Palmer’s beacon, then noticed a glove sticking out of the snow. With a shovel, Skier 1 began digging Palmer out.
By 1:28 p.m., Skier 1 had uncovered Palmer’s face and chest, which was buried about 3 feet under snow. Palmer was not breathing or responsive and didn’t have a pulse. After attempting CPR, Skier 1 decided he needed to find help.
“Deciding to stop CPR to try and find help is a really difficult decision to have to make,” Greene said. “It’s a really tough call and everyone is going to have a different opinion, but it’s hard to see how that would have changed the outcome.”
Skier 1 traveled about 100 yards down the mountain before coming across a pair of skiers and a solo-tourer. They decided the two skiers would go with Skier 1, and the solo tourer would head to the highway and call 911.
The solo tourer was able to make that call at 2:24 p.m.
The three skiers went back to Palmer, moved him to a safer location and resumed CPR. After about 20 minutes, with no sight of search crews, one of the pair of skiers went to the highway to find help.
Fearing that skier didn’t make it, the other partner went downhill around 3:45 p.m. to make sure they were OK.
Skier 1 continued CPR alone until Search and Rescue arrived at 4:40 p.m. Palmer was put in a sled and taken downhill, reaching an ambulance on the highway at 5:50 p.m.
An autopsy to determine Palmer’s official cause of death had not been completed. Efforts to reach San Juan County Coroner Keri Metzler on Monday were unsuccessful.
The report concludes that both skiers had read about the avalanche danger and developed a plan to avoid the area they ended up in. Skier 1, after reviewing photos of where the avalanche occurred, was surprised how far off track they had become.
“Whatever the reason, it is not uncommon experience for backcountry travelers,” the report says.
This accident marked the first avalanche death in Colorado of the 2017-18 season.
According to friends, Palmer attended Telluride High School, studied at Fort Lewis College and worked at Durango Sports Club.
“He was always one of those happy-go-lucky guys that was enjoying life and had a smile on his face,” Will Thomas, owner of Durango Sports Club, said in an earlier interview. “Abel was one of the biggest outdoorsmen I’ve ever known.”
A GoFundMe campaign was started to help Palmer’s family with funeral costs.