Olivia Buchanan, a 23-year-old woman who grew up in Durango, was studying snow science in college – an indication of her passion for the outdoors.
After she died Tuesday in an avalanche on Kendall Mountain above Silverton, her friends remembered her as a warm and fun person who loved skiing and climbing. Although she would push her comfort zone, she was not one to take chances in the outdoors, friends said Wednesday.
“She was a wonderful friend who was always fun ... and always down for the next adventure,” said Taiya Andrews, who graduated from Durango High School with Buchanan in 2010.
“She made me watch ski movies in the summer,” Andrews recalled via cellphone from Portland, Oregon. “I’d say, ‘Olivia, let’s go do something.’ ‘No, just one more ski movie.’”
Claire Carver, 24, who graduated from DHS a year ahead of Buchanan and now lives in Telluride, said Buchanan had “a very wise approach to things and was always the voice of reason. So I think that being said is why it’s a very hard and shocking one to take.”
Carver lost her brother, Peter Carver, in an avalanche nearly two years ago.
Buchanan died after being caught in an avalanche and swept into trees on Kendall Mountain south of Silverton. She was pronounced dead after being flown to Mercy Regional Medical Center, San Juan County Coroner Keri Metzler said Wednesday.
Buchanan was unconscious when rescue workers arrived at the scene Tuesday evening. She was treated as a cold-water drowning victim until she could not be revived at Mercy, Metzler said.
Buchanan and a partner were skiing from the top of Kendall down the Rabbit Ears avalanche chute, also known as the Arcade route, which dumps out at 12th Street in Silverton. After the avalanche, Buchanan’s male ski partner began CPR, San Juan County Sheriff Sue Kurtz told the Silverton Standard & The Miner.
At 4 p.m. emergency responders got word of the situation and mobilized, said Jim Donovan, captain of San Juan Search and Rescue. Flight For Life was able to shuttle rescue crew members up to the site, near 11,000 feet, but was unable to land to load Buchanan, he said. Silverton is at 9,300 feet.
Forecasters from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center were on hand to analyze avalanche danger for the responders, Donovan said.
San Juan Search and Rescue was able to take Buchanan down the mountain, partly in the darkness, he said. CPR continued during breaks throughout the extrication.
Near the bottom, a snowmobile took Buchanan to a waiting ambulance about 7 p.m., Donovan said. She then was transferred to the Flight For Life helicopter and was flown to Mercy.
An autopsy will be performed in Grand Junction later this week, Metzler said.
Buchanan was an intern in 2011 at the Silverton Avalanche School. She was currently studying geography, specifically snow science, at Montana State University in Bozeman.
One of her DHS classmates, Kaila Hart, had just moved to Bozeman in October and was Buchanan’s roommate there. Friends visited Wednesday after they heard the news, she said.
“We’ve had people coming and going from the house all day. There’s just no end to it,” Hart said Wednesday afternoon. “So many people I’ve had to tell.
“She just touched so many people in so many different ways,” Hart said. “It’s hard to describe.”
Buchanan’s parents, Evan and Amy Buchanan, and sister, Emma, live in Durango. Olivia Buchanan had been in Durango during Christmas break.
Donovan, who also is director of the Silverton Avalanche School, said Buchanan has many friends in the Silverton area. She was passionate about skiing and wise about avalanche dangers, he said. She had taken a Level 2 avalanche course.
“It’s very tragic for the community up here,” said Donovan.
Olivia Buchanan worked at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort beginning in 2006, according to a statement Wednesday afternoon from resort CEO Gary Derck. Her father has worked for two decades at the Expert Edge Ski & Board Shop there.
“On behalf of the entire team at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, our heartfelt condolences go out to Olivia Buchanan’s family,” Derck said in the statement. “Olivia was a beautiful woman with a big heart, and a great skier. We were lucky to have her as part of our team ... and she will be missed dearly.”
Donovan said several groups helped with Tuesday evening’s rescue, including Silverton Mountain ski guides.
“It was a very big team effort,” he said. “All the different organizations pulled together real quickly to help out.”
A preliminary report on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website Wednesday said one skier was caught on the Rabbit Ears avalanche path and washed into a stand of trees. She was reportedly on the right ear, or shoot, of the Rabbit Ears, if looking up at the mountain.
“The avalanche released on a portion of the avalanche path (gully) that is below treeline (around 11,000 feet) and faces northwest,” the report says.
Donovan said the slide was not deep, but it probably ran about 400 feet on a slope with many trees on it.
Donovan cautioned other backcountry users that although avalanche conditions are considered “moderate,” he said they are using the term “scary moderate.” Warming temperatures in the last couple of days were probably a contributing factor.
“Right now is actually a very tricky time to evaluate conditions,” he said. “It might look safe out there, but it’s tricky because it’s just not as obvious. ... You could set off a large avalanche.”
This was the second avalanche death in Colorado in a week. A climber died Dec. 31 on the east side of Kelso Mountain near Torreys Peak just east of Loveland Pass.
Also, a snowboarder went for a 900-foot ride after triggering an avalanche Friday in the Upper Bear Creek sidecountry area near Telluride, according to the Telluride Daily Planet. His snowboard was broken, but he was uninjured.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Freelance writer Samantha Wright and Silverton Standard & The Miner Editor Mark Esper contributed to this report.