CSU student Joe Philpott killed in avalanche near Cameron Pass; Alex White survives buried for hours

White survives thanks to 'avalung'

FORT COLLINS, Colo. - The two skiers were trapped by an avalanche just south of Cameron Pass, outside Rocky Mountain National Park, on Saturday.

CSU student Joe Philpott, 26, died in the avalanche while his friend, 24-year-old Alex White, survived for hours buried in the snow.

The two were backcountry skiing on Paradise Bowl by the Nokhu Crags when the avalanche occurred around 1:15 p.m., said Jackson County Sheriff Scott Fischer.

Philpott had skied to bottom and White was coming down or was close to bottom of the slope, with a dog following close behind him, when the slide occurred and buried all three, Fischer said.

Philpott was wearing an avalanche beacon but was found dead at the scene when rescuers unburied him within 20 minutes after the slide. The coroner said Monday that he had died of injuries he suffered in the avalanche.

Rescuers were also able to track White using his avalanche beacon, Fischer said.

White was wearing an avalung, a tube-like apparatus he used to breathe under the snow. It took rescuers close to three hours to free him and by that time he was nearly in a hypothermic state, Fischer said.

"You have to move over one ton of snow to get someone out a hole, just a meter deep, just 3 feet deep," explained Brian Lazar, deputy director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "He could have had 2,000 pounds of snow or more on top of him."

White was airlifted to Medical Center of the Rockies in Fort Collins where he was listed in fair condition.

The dog has not been located but is presumed dead.

Philpott was a junior, majoring in forestry and studying at CSU's Warner College of Natural Resources. He grew up in Durango.

Fischer said many members of the Jackson County search and rescue team were in nearby Gould, participating in a benefit run for the Wounded Warriors program, so they were fortunate to get the avalanche quickly when they received the distress call.

The avalanche that buried White and Philpott was about 1,200 feet wide, 1 to 6 feet deep and 800 to 1,000 feet long, according to CAIC. It was traveling about 60 mph to 100 mph.

"It was fairly big -- big enough to wash a car off the road," Lazar said. "It broke some sizable trees."

"A large avalanche like the one we saw at Cameron Pass …  is capable of destroying a house, it's capable of breaking trees, certainly capable of killing a person," said Scott Toepfer, an avalanche forecaster with CAIC. "That's a big avalanche and that's what we're starting to see a little bit more this year and we have a feeling we are going to see more of those before the snow melts out the spring.

"The avalanche size is getting bigger, deeper, longer, wider, which for a number of reasons is a problem. These kind of avalanches are hard to escape from," Toepfer said.

The CAIC said the avalanche danger is "considerable" in northern and central Colorado.

"Big avalanches are beautiful to see and to see the scale of some of these things and what they can do is quite impressive but if I was to be out in the backcountry right now, I'd be very cautious," Toepfer said.

In the first two days of March, there have been four avalanche fatalities in the nation.  Even the rescuers say it's extraordinary that White survived.

"It was a fairly big avalanche and you don't often see survivors who had been buried for a considerable amount of time, survive this avalanche. So it is pretty remarkable," Lazar said.