CAIC report: Deaths of 4 experienced snowboarders, 1 skier was a 'very tragic' but 'avoidable'

Men triggered slide crossing near bottom of slope

LOVELAND PASS, Colo. - A report says the deaths of four snowboarders and one skier in an avalanche near Loveland Ski Area Saturday was a "very tragic accident" but "it was avoidable."

The five men who died and one survivor were experienced backcountry adventurers and they were equipped with proper gear, including avalanche beacons, authorities said.

Yet, they were hit by a "deep-persistent slab" avalanche as they hiked across the lower part of a slope, before they'd even hiked up Mount Sniktau to take a run, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report issued Wednesday.

"It is easy to underestimate the consequences of getting caught in a deep-persistent slab avalanche, because these slides are often much bigger than most of the avalanches witnessed by backcountry recreationalists," the report said.

"When you're dealing with avalanches that are this large, your best bet is really to just avoid them," said CAIC Director Ethan Greene.

The five men killed in an avalanche northeast of Loveland Pass Saturday have been identified as Chris Peters, 32, from Lakewood, Joe Timlin, 32 of Gypsum, Ryan Novack, 33, of Boulder, Ian Lamphere, 36, of Crested Butte, and Rick (or Rich) Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park.

The sixth snowboarder, Jerome Boulay, of Silverton, was buried with the lower portion of his one arm out of the snow. He was able to clear his face enough to breathe, but remained trapped in the snow for about four hours until rescuers arrived and freed him,  the report said.

The men were part of a large group of backcountry enthusiasts participating in the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering, an event promoting backcountry snowboarding and avalanche safety, CAIC said.

The report noted that the men took several precautions to avoid what a CAIC bulletin had forecast as a "considerable" avalanche danger in the area.  

Before heading off into the backcountry about 10 a.m. Saturday, the six men had studied a CAIC avalanche bulletin and "discussed the deep-persistent slab (avalanche) problem," the report said.

The bulletin had warned backcountry recreationalists about the threat of a deep-persistent slab slide.

Greene said a deep-persistent slab avalanche is created when a weak, layer of granular "sugar snow" develops in the snowpack and then new storms dump layer after layer of snow on top of it.

He compared it to a large building built on a weak foundation.  Sooner or later, the weak base will cause "the rest of the winter snowpack sitting on top of it" to collapse, he said.

"If you find the wrong spot, the resulting avalanche will be very large, destructive, and dangerous. Conservative and cautious route finding and terrain selection are the best ways to avoid the problem," the bulletin read.

To avoid the potential avalanche risk, the men decided to cross the Sheep Creek drainage gully, and then "ascend a few hundred vertical feet onto northwest-facing slopes of Mount Sniktau. They aimed to avoid the more north-facing slopes which they recognized as a threat, by crossing well below" the top of the slope "to reach what they deemed safer terrain," the report said.

The group, in climbing mode, decided to spread out with about 50 feet between people as they crossed below the north-facing slopes, and headed for a small stand of trees on a small knoll on the far northeast side of the open slopes, the report said.

The CAIC report called the stand of trees an "island of safety" where the men planned to take refuge in an avalanche.

The first two members in the group had reached the small stand of trees, with the other four group members close behind, when "they felt a large collapse and heard a whumpf," the report said. It took several seconds for the crack to spread uphill and release the deep-slab avalanche.

"In those several seconds, they all ran for the far end of the slope and towards the small stand of trees," the report said. "At least 3 members of the group reached the 'island of safety' they had identified, only to be subsequently caught and buried in the avalanche."

"The avalanche washed the group into a gully, burying all six of the group members" in snow up to 12 feet deep, the report said.

"The avalanche was medium size relative to the avalanche path, large enough to bury or destroy a car (but probably not large enough to destroy a wood framed house)," the report said.

The slide was 800-feet wide, 600-feet long and up to 12-feet deep, the report said.

It took several hours for rescuers to reach the lone survivor and unbury the five men who died.

CAIC issued these guidelines for backcountry recreationalists:

- Know the current avalanche conditions before your trip. In Colorado go to www.colorado.gov/avalanche and for national information go to www.avalanche.org. Avalanche conditions in Colorado are more dangerous right now than the typical April. The weather over the next month could exacerbate our current avalanche problems.

- Carry avalanche rescue gear. This should include an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe pole. It can also include Recco tabs, airbags, and Avalung. Know how to use this equipment. Remember that having equipment does not guarantee your safety, but not getting caught in anavalanche does.

- Get avalanche education. Know how to use the information provided by avalanche centers. There are online tutorials and lots of great classes provide by people working with the American Avalanche Association and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

- Even experienced backcountry travelers can, and sometimes do, die in avalanches.

- Even though this is a very tragic accident, it was avoidable. There are numerous resources available to people to learn about avalanche safety and current avalanche conditions. You can enjoy winter recreation and avoid dying in an avalanche.