5 snowboarders killed in avalanche by Loveland Pass, worst Colorado avalanche accident since 1962

Lone survivor called for help

DENVER - Five snowboarders were killed in an avalanche on Mount Sniktau, northeast of Loveland Pass, Saturday afternoon -- the deadliest avalanche accident in Colorado since 1962.

A  group of six people were snowboarding in the backcountry when they apparently triggered the slide, said Clear Creek County Sheriff Don Krueger.

A man in the group snowboarded to the side of the avalanche and was partially buried. He was able to dig out and call for help.

If it wasn't for that lone survivor,  nobody would have known about the group being trapped in the avalanche until hours later, when someone would have reported them missing when they didn't return home Saturday night, Krueger said.

The snow slide occurred just after 2 p.m. but it took four hours to recover the bodies, authorities said.

There were whiteout conditions in the mountains, making the search and rescue tough, the sheriff said.

“It’s snowing like hell up here, which isn’t helping,” Krueger told 7NEWS.

Eventually searchers from Clear Creek County, the Alpine Rescue Team and the Summit Rescue Team and the Loveland and Arapahoe Basin ski resorts located the bodies.

Krueger said the avalanche was 650 feet wide, 1,100 feet long and 8 feet deep. All of the snowboarders had the right equipment, including avalanche beacons, which helps pinpoint where you are buried.
 
Krueger said he didn't know where the snowboarders were from and did not have their identities. The victims' bodies are now at the coroner's office, and the coroner is expected to release more information about the victims on Sunday.

For several hours, family and friends of the victims waited by Loveland Pass, hoping for good news on the snowboarders, but as the hours passed, the chances of survival appeared slim. Hours later, several of the victims' friends walked into Loveland Ski Resort where victims' advocates were on hand to help .

The survivor did not suffer any major injuries and was not transported.

The area of the avalanche is only for very experienced skiers and snowboarders.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), two days ago there was a reported natural slide in the same area off of Loveland Pass that had the same characteristics as this one. 

The center also said this accident was the second worst avalanche incident in the state since 1950. In 1962, seven residents of Twin Lakes were caught in an avalanche and another in 1987 caught four skiers at Tenmile Range.

CAIC forecaster Spencer Logan said there have been weak layers in Colorado's snowpack since early January.

"Our last series of storms made them more active again," he said. "Over the last week and a half, that area got over 18 inches of snow, so if you melted that that would be 2 inches of water, so that is a heavy load."

On Thursday, a 38-year-old snowboarder died in an avalanche south of Colorado's Vail Pass. Eagle County sheriff's officials said the man and another snowboarder likely triggered the slide after a friend on a snowmobile dropped them off at the top of Avalanche Bowl.

Transportation officials shut down US 6 Loveland Pass around 3:20 p.m. to support Saturday's search and rescue. The slide did not hit the highway. The Colorado Department of Transportation reopened Loveland Pass at 8 p.m.

The avalanche occurred on a spring weekend when many skiers and snowboarders took advantage of late season snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. At least four Colorado ski resorts reopened for the weekend after a snowstorm earlier in the week, and four others were still open for the season.

Loveland Pass, at an elevation of 11,990 feet, is popular among backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and on Saturday, Snowboard Magazine had promoted the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering there for a day of gear demonstrations and shredding.

Treacherous winter weather is not unusual on the pass, which is about 60 miles west of Denver. Skiers and snowboarders in search of fresh snow often hitchhiked from lower elevations to the rocky summit above tree line. The area also is popular among photographers and tourists seeking some of the most expansive views in Colorado.

U.S. avalanche deaths climbed steeply after 1990, averaging 24 a year, as new gear became available for backcountry travel. Until then, avalanches rarely claimed more than a handful of lives each season in records going back to 1950.