Aspen area has suffered the brunt of Colorado’s fatal avalanches this year
The Aspen area has been hit particularly hard by avalanche tragedies this year with three of four fatalities in Colorado being residents of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Owen Green, 27, of Aspen, and Michael Goerne, 37, of Carbondale, died Saturday when they were caught in a slide in the backcountry outside of Crested Butte in Gunnison County.
Earlier this season, Arin Trook, 48, of Aspen, was killed when caught in an avalanche on Green Mountain, southwest of Aspen in Pitkin County.
The other person killed in an avalanche in Colorado this year was Peter Marshall, 40, of Longmont, who was buried near Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains on Jan. 5.
As tragic as it has been, the number of fatalities could have been even greater after numerous close calls in the Colorado backcountry, particularly in January, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“We’ve had a lot more people caught and carried by avalanches this year,” Brian Lazar, deputy director and a forecaster with the avalanche center, said Monday.
Earlier this month, the avalanche center’s Spencer Logan dug deeper into avalanche data for the state.
“As of January 31, we have documented 57 people caught in 42 separate avalanche events,” Logan wrote on a blog post on the center’s website earlier this month. That included 32 people caught in slides in January alone. The 57 people caught are more than reported to CAIC in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2017-18 combined.
As of the end of January, there had been five people who had been fully buried but survived avalanches this season. That included an employee of Aspen Powder Tours who was buried on the back of Aspen Mountain during a reconnaissance trip. He was dug out by a colleague and suffered only minor injuries.
Lazar said Colorado has averaged six avalanche deaths annually over the past decade. CAIC research shows that by the end of January, there are typically two or three fatalities per season.
“The differences in total seasonal fatalities over recent winters tend to appear in February or April,” Logan’s blog said. “Over the last few decades, most fatal avalanches occur in January, February or March. Accidents in the spring separate typically tragic from exceptionally tragic seasons.”
The deadliest winter for avalanches in Colorado was 1992-93, when 12 people were killed. The 2012-13 season was right behind with 11 fatalities.
Nothing about the Colorado snowpack this year is wildly different from conditions in other winters, Lazar said. As is typical in the state, early-season snow in October didn’t melt off before full-fledged winter. The lower layers deteriorated and weakened. That made conditions susceptible to slides when above-average snowfall started dumping later in the winter. Breaks in between storms have allowed additional layers to weaken, Lazar said. That becomes a problem when loaded by new storms.
The explosion in the popularity of backcountry skiing suggests that more people are venturing out, Lazar said, and with more people come more problems. The avalanche center is confident of the accuracy of its statistics on fatalities, but it only knows about other incidents when they are reported. Lazar said it is likely that the number of people who were buried but survived slides is higher than CAIC is able to report.
“It could be more are being caught in avalanches this year,” he said.
The avalanche center staff keeps seeking additional ways to get the word out when conditions are dangerous. It posted a special note on its website prior to Presidents Day weekend.
“Over the last 10 years, February is the single-most dangerous month for avalanches in Colorado,” the notice said. It noted there had been 15 fatal avalanches during the month over the past decade, with four deaths between Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day.
“Historically, this weekend has been a dangerous period for avalanche accidents,” the website said prior to the weekend. “We would like to break the pattern.”
That made the fatal accident involving Green and Goerne particularly tough on the CAIC staff, which Monday updated its preliminary report on Saturday’s slide. Green and Georne were traveling across a slope with a 37 degree angle, and the avalanche size relative to the path was rated as R3 (on a scale of 1-5). Officials estimate the two were hit just before 9 a.m. Saturday.
“It weighs heavily on us,” Lazar said.
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