- Location: Temptation avalanche path, Bear Creek, south of Telluride
- State: Colorado
- Date: 2019/02/19
- Summary Description: 1 sidecountry rider caught, 1 backcountry skier caught, buried, and killed
- Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
- Primary Travel Mode: Ski
- Location Setting: Backcountry
- Caught: 1
- Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 0
- Partially Buried, Critical: 0
- Fully Buried: 1
- Injured: 0
- Killed: 1
- Type: SS
- Trigger: AR - Snowboarder
- Trigger (subcode): u - An unintentional release
- Size - Relative to Path: R2
- Size - Destructive Force: D2
- Sliding Surface: O - Within Old Snow
- Slope Aspect: E
- Site Elevation: 11800 ft
- Slope Angle: 35 °
- Slope Characteristic: Gully/Couloir
The avalanche was a soft slab unintentionally triggered by a snowboarder. It was medium-sized relative to the path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person. It broke in old snow (SS-ARu-R2D2-O). The avalanche failed on a layer of near-surface facets that developed during dry weather at the beginning of February. The crown face ranged from 24 to 36 inches deep. Downslope, the avalanche stepped down to a hard crust just above the ground. This was a persistent slab avalanche
The avalanche released on a sparsely-treed, east-facing slope around 35 degrees in steepness. The snowboarders described two waves of snow, with the second larger than the first. The avalanche flowed down the open slope, into a very narrow gully, over cliffs, and to the valley floor. It ran about 2000 vertical feet. The debris pile was approximately 100 feet wide, about 1000 feet up the slope, and up to 30 feet deep.
Backcountry Avalanche Forecast
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) backcountry avalanche forecast for the North San Juan Mountains on February 19, 2019 rated the avalanche danger at Considerable (Level 3) near and above treeline and Moderate (Level 2) below treeline. Persistent Slab avalanche was the first avalanche problem listed. It was highlighted on all aspects and at all elevations. The likelihood of triggering was Possible and potential size was Large to Very Large. Storm Slab avalanche was the second problem listed. It was highlighted on all aspects and near and above treeline elevations. The likelihood of triggering was Likely and the potential size was Small to Large. The Summary statement in the forecast said:
You can trigger avalanches that break in recent storm snow or in older, weak snow. Since Sunday night, low-density snow formed soft slabs up to 18 inches thick. Moderate south winds will easily drift snow into stiffer slabs. Expect these to be thicker and more widespread near and above treeline on west to north through east-facing slopes. Look for and avoid rounded pillows and new cornice growth can clue you into heavily wind-drifted areas. Use cracking in the snow surface to help identify areas where a cohesive storm slab exists.
A larger and potentially more dangerous problem is triggering an avalanche in weak, faceted snow that formed during dry weather at the end of January. New snow is not adding a huge load to the snowpack, but modest amounts each day add up and continue to stress weaker snow below. Avalanches triggered in the storm snow can potentially step down to deeper, weak layers. An avalanche that breaks deeper in the snowpack can result in a very large and possibly deadly slide. Avoid travel on and under wind-drifted slopes steeper than 30 degrees at higher elevations. Give steep, wind-prone slopes below treeline a second look. Pay attention to what’s above you and can stick to lower-angled terrain if stability is in question.
The Telluride Ski Patrol (TSP) maintains a snow study site at Ski Patrol Headquarters at an elevation of 11,850 feet and 0.3 miles north of the accident site. In the sixteen days prior to the accident, TSP measured a total of 55 inches of snow with 5.25 inches of snow water equivalent (SWE). TSP measured 2.5 inches of snow and 0.2 inches of SWE on their 24 hour interval stake on the morning of February 19. Snow continued throughout the day with accumulations of 2 inches by 4:00 PM. From February 16 until the afternoon of February 18 the wind blew from the south and southwest with hourly averages between 5 and 15 mph with gusts to 40 mph.
On February 19, winds blew from the west-southwest between 5 to 15 mph with a peak gust of 34 mph. Weather stations recorded a low temperature of -8F and a high of 8F. Skies were overcast on the morning of the accident and it was snowing lightly.
Ample snow fell in October and faceted during dry weather in mid-November. A series of storms in late November and early December built layers of wind-drifted snow over a weak layer of depth hoar. Snowfall began again in late December and a steady stream of storms brought up to six feet of snow to the area by mid-January. This period of snowfall produced a widespread natural avalanche cycle on January 18, 2019.
In the last two weeks of January, an extended period of dry and cold weather followed a series of small snow storms. This produced a weak layer near the snow surface, manifesting as near-surface facets and a facet/crust combination in different areas of the North San Juan forecast zone. Snowfall returned to the area in early February with two warm, wet storms and over four feet of snow through mid-February. The heavy snow produced an increase in avalanche activity, and the CAIC recorded 98 avalanches between February 3 and February 18 in the North San Juan forecast zone. The majority of natural and human-triggered avalanches occurred near and below treeline on all aspects excluding south.
Events Leading to the Avalanche
Skier 1 left the town of Telluride around 9:00 AM on the morning of February 19. He planned a casual ski for exercise on the Bear Creek trail. He traveled uphill on alpine tour skis and climbing skins.
Around 10:30 AM, three snowboarders crossed the boundary of the Telluride Ski Resort into the Bear Creek drainage. Their intention was to ride a slope locally known as Temptation-East Face that feeds into an avalanche path called Temptation. Rider 1 crossed the boundary across from Alpino Vino, an on-mountain restaurant at the Telluride Ski Resort. He stopped in an open area near the top of Temptation-East Face where he spotted as Riders 2 and 3 descended a slope a bit further to the south.
Riders 2 and 3 rode the slope one at a time without incident.They both stopped at a landmark known as Big Tree, a common regrouping point. Big Tree is about one third of the way to the valley bottom, above the entrance to Temptation. Riders 2 and 3 called Rider 1 on radios, and he began his descent.
Rider 1 saw cracking on his second or third turn. The cracks shot across the entire slope and the avalanche released. He was caught in the middle of the slab. He rode at a 45 degree angle to the fall-line to get out of the moving snow. Over the radio he yelled “get safe, get safe” to his friends below. Rider 1 described feeling that he was starting to get sucked into the avalanche, but he was able to stay on his feet and ride out of the moving snow.
The avalanche barreled down the open slope, missing Riders 2 and 3. The avalanche funneled into Temptation avalanche path and ran to the valley bottom. It produced a large powder cloud.
The three riders made radio contact and confirmed that everyone was OK. Rider 1 then rode the firm bed surface to Big Tree to regroup with Riders 2 and 3. From Big Tree the riders entered Temptation one at a time and worked their way to the valley bottom without further incident.
When Riders 1, 2, and 3 arrived at the valley bottom they found a large pile of avalanche debris. There were numerous ski and snowboard tracks in the area, but no people. Though the group was fairly certain that no one was in the slide path ahead of them, Rider 1 performed a transceiver search and spot probed for about an hour while Riders 2 and 3 watched from a safe area. He did not find anything in the debris and the three riders headed down the Bear Creek Trail and back to the town of Telluride. On the way down the trail, Rider 1 talked to a family walking the trail toward the falls. He told them about the avalanche and advised them to turn around due to unsafe avalanche conditions.
Skier 1’s wife reported him missing to the San Miguel Sheriff’s office at 4:20 PM. Sheriff personnel pinged Skier 1’s cell phone and located it in the Bear Creek drainage. The Town of Telluride temporarily closed the Bear Creek trailhead at 5:24 PM for search and rescue operations. Telluride ski patrollers and two avalanche dogs searched the avalanche debris below Temptation for approximately two hours. Searchers noted a skier’s uphill track leading into the debris, but found no other indications that anyone was involved. The Sheriff’s Office identified and contacted the snowboarders that evening. They confirmed that they triggered the avalanche earlier in the day.
The search resumed on the morning of February 20. Members of the San Miguel County Search and Rescue and a CAIC forecaster flew over Bear Creek in a helicopter. They noted the uphill ski track leading into the avalanche debris below Temptation and decided to focus their efforts there. Telluride Ski Patrol and Helitrax conducted avalanche mitigation to protect the rescuers. They triggered several avalanches, but none ran to the valley floor. Telluride Ski Resort closed several lifts to limit access to the Bear Creek drainage. Searching began with several ski patrollers and avalanche dogs. As additional searchers arrived they began a probe line. Probers struck Skier 1’s backpack within a few minutes of organized probing.
The probleline found Skier 1 around 11:30 AM about 10 feet uphill of his backpack. He was face down, head downhill, buried under about 6 feet of debris. Skier 1 was not wearing an avalanche transceiver or carrying a shovel or probe pole. His skis were not on his feet and his climbing skins were in his backpack.
All of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate are tragic events. We do our best to describe each event to help the people involved and the community as a whole better understand them. We offer these comments in the hope that it will help people avoid future avalanche accidents.
Most of the backcountry slopes in Bear Creek accessed from the ski resort are avalanche terrain. It is important for backcountry travelers to consider the potential impacts of avalanches on other travelers, trails, or roadways. The three snowboarders waited before entering the Temptation area, which made them "feel confident" that no other groups were on the slopes below them. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing if anyone was on the trail in the valley bottom.
The Bear Creek Trail runs up Bear Creek Canyon and is common place for a casual hike or quick ski. However, it crosses the runout of several avalanche paths. Although people can only trigger avalanches from runout areas under specific conditions, the trail it is still in avalanche terrain. It is important for backcountry travelers to know what terrain is above them and take appropriate precautions.
Unfortunately, Skier 1 was not carrying avalanche rescue equipment. That is not unexpected if he was out for a short trip along a well-used trail. His short trip, though, was exposed to avalanches from above. The outcome of this accident would probably not have changed if Skier 1 was wearing an avalanche transceiver, but the search would have been significantly shorter.
Figure 9: Observation made by Telluride Helitrax staff near the avalanche crown, February 21, 2019, two days after the avalanche occurred.