A Seattle woman who died while ice climbing in Ouray last weekend was the victim of one of the rarest avalanche accident fatalities in the state, and her death, according to a final report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, was determined by a matter of inches.
“It’s a really tragic accident,” said Ethan Greene, director of CAIC. “I think it’s important for all of us to remember there is danger out there in the mountains. We can reduce the risks from those hazards, but we can’t remove the risks completely.”
Around 10:30 a.m. Jan. 18, Van Le Little, 44, went ice climbing with a guide and two other climbers in the Uncompahgre Gorge just off U.S. Highway 550 when a chunk of ice broke off a mountainside, causing a slide of snow and ice to come down on the group.
Little, who had stepped just off to the side to take pictures, was the only member of the group injured. The avalanche carried her down the hillside, and she was later found under 5 feet of snow and ice, trapped in the Red Mountain Creek bed.
Ouray County Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd confirmed Friday the guiding company was Chicks Climbing and Skiing. Calls to the company were not returned Friday morning.
According to the final incident report by the CAIC, Little’s death was a rarity.
For starters, the avalanche was triggered naturally. In Colorado, only about 7% of fatal avalanches involve a naturally caused slide, according to 30 years’ worth of records, the CAIC said.
And, in the past 10 years, climbers have accounted for only about 7% of avalanche fatalities. The CAIC said Little’s death marks the fifth fatal avalanche in the past 10 years to involve a climber.
The circumstances of her death, too, show Little was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On Jan. 18, avalanche danger for the north San Juan Mountains was listed as moderate. In the past two days, a winter storm had dropped about 4 inches of fresh snow. That morning was clear and cold, with temperatures rising from 0 degrees at 4 a.m. to 18 degrees by 11 a.m.
Around 8 a.m., a guide took three clients out to go ice climbing on a route known as The Dungeon. The route is in the same gorge as the Ouray Ice Park but is considered outside park boundaries.
The guide was the first to ascend the route, setting top ropes so the clients could take turns climbing. Little, who was feeling coldest in the group, went first and completed her route.
While waiting on the ground for other climbers to take turns, Little stepped “slightly to the north of the route to take pictures,” the CAIC said.
“The group heard a loud ‘crack’ and suddenly ice and snow rained down upon them,” the report said. “When the air cleared, the group saw that the snow and ice had obviously hit and buried (Little).”
The guide lowered one of the clients who was climbing the route, and the group called 911 and began searching for Little, “digging through the debris with their hands.”
“They could not find evidence of (Little) and believed she was buried in Red Mountain Creek,” the report said. “They were unable to search the creek bottom due to the fragile snow and ice bridge in the gorge and the fast-flowing water underneath.”
After not finding Little, the guide went to the group’s packs and sent an SOS message with a satellite GPS tracker and provided search and rescue teams with a more precise location of their whereabouts.
At 11 a.m., Ouray Mountain Rescue was dispatched, arriving on scene about 30 minutes later, descending into the gorge and probing for Little, an effort that produced several false positives.
“A member of the rescue team broke through the bridge of snow and ice debris revealing the flowing water of the creek underneath,” the report said. “OMR fixed a safety line between trees on either side of the creek. Two rescuers clipped into the safety line and continued spot probing.”
Just before noon, Little was found. Efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.
“It just, unfortunately, seems like it was a freak accident,” Boyd said.
The CAIC report said the group was not carrying avalanche equipment or a beacon, but it is unlikely the outcome would have been any different had they been. Colleen Hollenbeck, Ouray County coroner, said Friday it would take a couple of weeks to determine the official cause of Little’s death.
Greene said the CAIC’s avalanche reports try to cover the broadest areas possible, but because of the terrain that most ice climbing takes place in, the forecast that day did not take into account where Little and the guide company were at.
“The terrain they were in has a lot of rock and ice, but only small amounts of snow collecting,” he said.
As for the beacon, Greene said it’s on a case-by-case basis whether ice climbers take avalanche equipment on their trips.
“They were not necessarily in an avalanche path, and whether they carry that equipment is up to them,” he said. “But we felt like from an educational perspective, it was a good opportunity for us to put the question out there.”
Lance Sullins, owner of Peak Mountain Guides (which was not involved in the incident), said it is rare that ice climbers find themselves in places at risk of avalanche danger. Climbers typically determine whether to bring avalanche gear after assessing their route and seeing if it’s necessary.
But in this case, it appears a piece of ice broke off, which caused the barrage of snow and ice – not your average avalanche.
“A huge piece of ice just totally slipped, and that’s not normal,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyone that would have made an assessment that was a specific hazard to anticipate that day.”
Like Greene, Sullins said there is inherit risk anytime people venture into the mountains.
“You can’t eliminate all the risk,” he said. “They were making the best choices they could make, and then this thing happens. I know for a fact people go there, and that was not a risk we were worried about. But it happened.”
Boyd said he recommends anyone traveling into the backcountry bring avalanche rescue gear and a beacon, but he understands that ice climbers are usually not in high-risk areas.
The Ouray County Plaindealer reported Little had worked for a financial data and software company, and had been a rock climber for 20 years. She was in Ouray for about a week trying ice climbing for the first time and had signed up for a four-day training clinic.