Two Durango backcountry skiers who died in an avalanche this past weekend were experienced and intimately familiar with the terrain, but rare and dangerous snowpack conditions presented risks not seen in years.
According to a preliminary report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, two backcountry skiers on Saturday planned to ski in an area known as Battleship, a popular backcountry skiing terrain northwest of Silverton, and just south of Ophir Pass.
But the pair – identified as Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, 53, and Albert Perry, 55, known to friends as “Bert” – were reported overdue by their friends Saturday night, setting off an extensive search and rescue mission around 8 p.m.
In the dark, crews in a Flight For Life helicopter could see a large avalanche and ski tracks on the north shoulder of Battleship. And friends of Paffendorf and Perry who are also experienced backcountry skiers volunteered to search for the pair, finding their bodies around 11 p.m.
Because of the late hour and the dangers that posed to rescue crews, the recovery mission was put off until the morning. The effort started at 8 a.m. Sunday, with the rescue team reaching the site around noon.
It appears the skiers were experienced outdoorsmen at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Paffendorf, an experienced and avid backcountry skier, was an anesthesiologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center for the past eight years.
“This loss is deeply felt by every caregiver in our hospitals,” said Mercy spokeswoman Lindsay Radford. “Dr. Paffendorf was known for the genuine and meaningful relationships he built with so many of his colleagues and patients during his career in Durango.”
A GoFundMe was set up Monday to help Paffendorf’s wife with the upbringing of their two twin sons, who were born in October.
Radford said Perry also had ties with Mercy: His wife, Angie Perry, is a medical surgical nurse, who for the past nine months has cared for patients on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our sympathies go out to the family, friends and loved ones, and all the caregivers who are grieving this painful loss,” Radford said.
Gina Piccoli, a broker at Coldwell Banker Heritage House Realtors in Durango, said Perry worked as real estate broker at the office for nearly four years. His biography on the company’s website says he moved to Southwest Colorado in 1993.
Piccoli called Perry the “ultimate outdoorsman,” who would regularly go on epic climbing and skiing trips. Recently, he traveled to Italy to climb in the Alps, she said.
“He was not just a weekend warrior,” Piccoli said. “He had just the most amazing love of the outdoors.”
Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, said Paffendorf was known among the backcountry skiing community as a knowledgeable and experienced skier.
On Monday morning, Greene said the investigation into the avalanche is pending, so he declined to get into specifics. He said a final report should be released this week.
Angie Perry said in an email to The Durango Herald the skiers were aware of the conditions that day and chose to ski low-angle terrain to minimize the avalanche risk. The skiers’ friends believe that a naturally-caused avalanche started higher on the mountain, resulting in their burial.
Greene said all three people who died backcountry skiing in Colorado this past weekend (the other fatality occurred near Crested Butte) were males in their 50s who had significant experience in the mountains.
“It appears, at this point, in all three (fatalities), the people were mature, and quite experienced, and probably in terrain they were pretty familiar with,” Greene said.
The issue, Greene said, seems to be that snowpack conditions were in such a bad, unstable state, likely not seen since 2012. Although not unprecedented, he said the snowpack conditions are worse than what many people have experienced.
All of Colorado’s backcountry terrain is listed in “considerable” avalanche danger, which means it’s easy to trigger a slide.
In the last week, the CAIC has received reports of nearly 400 avalanches, with people triggering more than 100 avalanches. Since Friday, nine people have been caught in avalanches.
In the CAIC’s report for the south San Juan Mountains on Monday, the center wrote: “If there was a time to tread carefully in avalanche terrain, this is it. It seems a little like Russian roulette at the moment, with a few folks traveling in high consequence terrain and not triggering avalanches, where others aren’t so lucky.”
The unstable snowpack is a result of early season snow in October and dry weather for weeks in November, causing the snowpack to become weak. Then, additional snow on top of that weak layer causes avalanches.
“How weak the snowpack gets depends on how the fall unfolds,” Greene said. “This particular year, the underlying snowpack is really weak.”
Greene said investigators will try to piece together the circumstances of Paffendorf and Perry’s deaths and try to track down other skiers in the area who may have seen the pair. But ultimately, there were no direct witnesses.
“Some stuff we won’t know ever,” he said.