It was a close call for a couple of backcountry skiers caught in an avalanche last month outside Silverton.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center posted a preliminary report Thursday with details about the avalanche that caught two skiers Jan. 21.
According to the report, around 10:30 a.m., “Skier 1,” an unidentified male, and “Skier 2,” an unidentified female, arrived at Ophir Pass Road, about 5½ miles northwest of Silverton, off U.S. Highway 550.
The report said Skier 1 was “very familiar” with the area and had skied it multiple times in the past month, and he was aware of the “significant natural avalanche cycle that occurred earlier in the week.” Skier 2 had never skied the area. It was the couple’s first time skiing together.
On the day of the avalanche, snow increased throughout the day, reducing the visibility to 500 feet, and winds reached 30 to 50 mph.
The skiers traveled up Ophir Pass Road for about 1 mile before descending a south-facing slope into Mineral Creek, the report says. At the bottom, the couple began to ascend toward the Battleship area to ski lower-angle terrain below an alpine bowl, north of Battleship.
As the couple traveled up, they encountered debris flow from a Jan. 18 avalanche. They skied on the debris path, believing it was a low-risk route because an avalanche had already been triggered.
The skiers, the report said, were trying to reach a large stand of trees at about 11,400 feet. Ten minutes before the avalanche, winds increased and started to blow straight down the slope. Skier 1 recommended they head back soon.
As Skier 1 was 50 feet from the tree stand and 20 feet ahead of Skier 2, on a 25- to 27-degree slope, he saw an avalanche approach from the left about noon.
“Skier 1 yelled, ‘Hey, hey,’ but they were engulfed in the slide before his second ‘hey,’” the report said.
The naturally triggered avalanche came from a steep, west-facing slope. It was medium in size, relative to its path, but large enough to kill someone. The report said its crown was 140 feet wide and 2,500 vertical feet.
“Both skiers described a violent ride – seeing dark, snow in their mouths and getting tumbled,” report said. “When Skier 1 stopped, he had an arm out of the snow but was then fully buried by a second wave of snow. When the debris stopped, Skier 2 was buried to her chest. Skier 2 took out her shovel and dug herself out.”
Skier 2 turned on her search beacon and got a signal that Skier 1 was about 145 feet away. She first started to travel uphill to find him but lost the signal and then searched downhill, picked up the signal again and found him about 9 feet away.
Skier 2 used an avalanche probe, a rod that is used to poke through the snow to find a buried victim, but it broke. She dug to find the buried skier and eventually saw his backpack.
She found him buried face down and his head facing downhill. He was unconscious and not breathing; his skin was a gray/blue pigment, but he had a pulse. Skier 2 uncovered the man’s head and dug out the rest of his body.
By the time he was fully unburied, the man was breathing, conscious and able to answer questions about where he was and what happened.
The report said he was buried under about 5 feet of snow.
The couple followed their ski tracks for 4½ hours to return to the parking area at Highway 550. According to the report, Skier 1 was uninjured and Skier 2 suffered a mild neck injury.
This marks the fourth avalanche the CAIC has reported this winter in the San Juan Mountains.
On Jan. 3, three snowshoers were caught in an avalanche near Trico Peak, west of Red Mountain Pass. No one was injured.
On Jan. 5, six people participating in a Silverton Avalanche School class were caught in an avalanche. Peter Marshall, 40, of Longmont died after being buried under at least 8 feet of snow.
On Dec. 16, two people snowmobiling near Hermosa Park on the Barlow Creek side were caught in an avalanche. No one was injured.