The sole survivor of an avalanche that killed five other men on the Continental Divide west of Denver was able to clear snow from his face with his unburied lower left arm so he could breathe, but he remained stuck for four hours until rescuers arrived, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said Wednesday.
In its final report on the weekend accident, the center said the state’s deadliest slide since 1962 was large enough to bury or destroy a car. Of the men who died in the 800-foot-wide, 600-foot-long avalanche Saturday morning, one was buried under 10 to 12 feet of snow.
The avalanche was tragic but avoidable, the center said.
The center’s final report offered new details on the avalanche that occurred as snowboarders and skiers converged near Loveland Pass for the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering. The event was promoted by a Colorado snowboarding magazine as a day for backcountry riding but also avalanche gear and safety demonstrations.
The four snowboarders and a skier who died were all from Colorado. The Clear Creek County sheriff’s office identified them as Christopher Peters, 32, of Lakewood; Joseph Timlin, 32, of Gypsum; Ryan Novack, 33, of Boulder; Ian Lamphere, 36, of Crested Butte; and Rick Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park.
Friends identified the survivor as Jerome Boulay of Crested Butte, who has declined requests for interviews.
All had proper avalanche equipment. At least two had avalanche airbags, and some had Avalung breathing devices but apparently were unable to use them, the report said.
“This was a really tragic accident. There’s no denying that,” said Ethan Greene, the center’s director. “Nobody’s immune from getting caught in avalanches. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this, how athletic you are. ... Everybody can get killed. It’s an equal-opportunity hazard.”
The center has said the avalanche was a deep persistent slab avalanche, which occurs when a thick layer of hard snow breaks loose from a weak, deep layer of snowpack underneath. Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters had alerted people about the potential for such avalanches Saturday, warning of likely trigger points.
“If you find the wrong spot, the resulting avalanche will be very large, destructive, and dangerous,” the forecast said.
On Saturday, Boulay and the other five men had left the parking lot of Loveland Ski Area, which wasn’t affiliated with the backcountry gathering, for a one-hour tour.
They read the center’s avalanche bulletin together, were aware of the deep persistent slab problem, and aimed to avoid threatening north-facing slopes as they planned to climb a few hundred vertical feet onto northwest-facing slopes, the report said.
But to get to that safer spot, they had to cross a dangerous area, Greene said. They decided to reduce the risk by leaving 50 feet between each person as they trekked. That turned out not to be enough for the large avalanche they triggered.
The group was heading for a stand of trees when they felt a large collapse and heard a “whumpf,” the report said. In the seconds it took for the crack in the snow to move uphill and release the deep slab, the group ran toward the trees. Everyone but Boulay was completely buried as the group was swept into the Sheep Creek gully.
Boulay was buried except for his lower left arm, which he used to clear snow from his face. He tried to free his other arm and screamed for help.
There was no one around to hear him, the report said.
“It covered everybody. There was nobody left to call 911, nobody left to look for the buried, to help the one person who wasn’t buried but couldn’t get out,” Greene said.
It took a while for anyone to realize the group was trapped.
Two Colorado Avalanche Information Center highway avalanche forecasters spotted the slide around 12:15 p.m. from Interstate 70. When they got to the scene about 30 minutes later, their avalanche beacons detected no signals. Even with binoculars, they couldn’t see tracks heading into the slide area, the report said.
After forecasters drove back to the ski area to ask others at the backcountry gathering whether anyone might be trapped, several people rushed to the scene.
The center urges even expert backcountry enthusiasts to know the conditions, have rescue equipment and get educated on avalanches.
“We owe it to these guys to learn from a really horrible accident they were involved in,” Greene said. “The only thing worse than all these guys getting killed is not to have us learn anything from it.”