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CAIC releases final, detailed reports on two deadly avalanches from last week

Posted at 7:10 AM, Dec 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-24 09:12:12-05

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has released its final reports on two avalanches — one Friday, one Saturday — that left three people dead.

The first avalanche occurred on the morning of Friday, Dec. 18. A man snowmobiled to Ohio Pass and explored the area for a couple hours. He ran into a group of three other snowmobilers at a high point southwest of where the avalanche began. The man told the group he'd already skied three runs and planned to go back down to his snowmobile and then head back to town for work, according to the CAIC report.

The group of three decided to ski down a run north of the high point. They descended toward their parked snowmobiles and noticed a large, recent avalanche on a slope below them, known as Friendly Finish. They skirted to the west of the avalanche and arrived back at their snowmobiles.

However, they noticed that the man they had met had not yet returned, since his snowmobile was still there. They thought something wasn't right since he had told them he planned to go to work that day, according to the CAIC report.

The group snowmobiled to the bottom of Friendly Finish, put skins on, and began to search for the man. They used a transceiver and were able to find him under two to three feet of snow. They extricated him, but he had not survived the avalanche.

A member of the group snowmobiled to the trailhead to call for help. The other two, as well as another skier who arrived at the site, brought the man's body to the trailhead to meet with Crested Butte Search and Rescue and local authorities, according to the CAIC report.

Based on the report, the man who died was a "very experienced backcountry skier" who had worked in ski patrol for more than 40 years and just retired from the job. He often explored alone.

CAIC said he entered the slope below the obviously wind-drifted area and likely triggered the avalanche where the recent snow was more shallow and soft.

At the time of the avalanche, he had been wearing an avalanche transceiver and was carrying a shovel and probe. While he didn't survive it, his transceiver did help the group of snowmobilers find him quickly.

CAIC said he may have been buried for as long as one hour before he was located.

He has not been identified.

The following day, Saturday, Dec. 19, two backcountry skiers died in an avalanche northwest of Silverton.

The two skiers planned to ski to an area north of Point 12442, which is locally known as Battleship, southeast of Ophir Pass in San Juan County.

Both men were familiar with the terrain and were very experienced in the backcountry. They left the trailhead at the winter closure of Ophir Pass Road around 10 a.m. and skied up the road before descending a south-facing slope into Mineral Creek. They then climbed east and into the lower portion of an area known as North Face of Battleship, according to the CAIC report.

They did one run and ascended debris from a previous avalanche and descended adjacent to it. They ascended to the west, toward the center of the North Face of Battleship. CAIC said nobody saw the avalanche, but they suspect the two skiers were traveling uphill when it was triggered.

The wife of one of the skiers reported them overdue around 8 p.m.

Crews on foot and in the air searched until 11 p.m. before pausing their efforts due to significant avalanche danger, weather and other hazards.

Three friends of the two missing men, who were all very experienced backcountry travelers and included an emergency room physician, left the trailhead around 10 p.m. and used a transceiver to search. CAIC said the trio was willing to accept a risk that was not appropriate for the official search and rescue crews.

The group of friends found the bodies of both men around midnight. One man was completely covered except for his hand. His head was about one foot below the snow. The other man was completely buried under four to six feet of snow, about 100 feet uphill from his companion.

Both men had deployed their avalanche airbags, according to the CAIC report.

The friends marked where the bodies were before returning to the trailhead by 2 a.m.

The men's bodes were recovered on Sunday, Dec. 20.

The San Juan County Coroner identified the deceased men as Albert Perry, 55, and Jeff Paffendorf, 51, both from Durango.

CAIC is urging people headed to the mountains to exercise extra care in the mountains and pay special attention to the avalanche forecast. Click here to check conditions and risks of avalanches across the state.

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