Olivia Buchanan, the 23-year old Durango and Silverton resident who was killed in an avalanche on Kendall Mountain almost a year ago, is the subject of an extensive multi-media feature that focuses on decision-making in backcountry terrain.
Powder Magazine reporter David Page spent weeks on the road to speak with skiers and snow safety experts for the five-part series, “The Human Factor.” Page’s travels took him to Silverton, where he looked into the tragic death of Buchanan and the events leading to the snowdrift.
Buchanan grew up in Durango, and graduated high school here in 2010. Throughout her life, Buchanan bounced between Durango and Silverton, where she interned with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and enjoyed an avid love of the mountains.
In her third-year at Montana State University in Bozeman studying snow science, Buchanan was spending winter break at a friend’s house in Silverton when she and a friend decided to backcountry ski on Jan. 6, on the side of Kendall Mountain that faces town.
Facing moderate avalanche conditions at 11,300 feet, Buchanan triggered a slide, which carried her several hundred feet through a grove of trees. Despite a tremendous rescue attempt, Buchanan could not be revived and died from her injuries.
The Powder Magazine feature speaks to Buchanan’s family, friends, professors and colleagues who all say the young student made sound decisions that day when sizing up snowpack risks. But, the physics of avalanches can be elusive, leaving little room for error.
“The one mistake she made was not recognizing the lower boundary of the slab she triggered,” Mark Gober, a Silverton-based forecaster with the CAIC who mentored Olivia Buchanan, told Powder Magazine. “Plain and simple. She recognized the slab, recognized it as a hazard, and communicated to (friend Ryan) Moomey that they needed to avoid it and go in below it.
“She was probably 10 feet from not triggering it,” Gober said. “Ten more feet downstream and she would have been in nothing but facets. It was a subtle thing. There was nothing obvious about it.”
Trying to turn around tragedy, Buchanan’s family set up “The Olivia Buchanan Avalanche Education Fund,” which provides avalanche education for women. Donations can be made to Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado or visit www.swcommunityfoundation.org online to make a donation.
An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information in the photo cutline showing Olivia Buchanan’s family.