Colorado Avalanche Information Center releases final report on fatal slide near Silverthorne
SILVERTHORNE — The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has published its final report on the avalanche that killed Denver resident Aaron Wiener near Silverthorne last week, offering new details about what might have led to the tragic slide.
On the afternoon of April 15, Wiener, 30, was skiing with two others on the north face of Red Peak, north of Silverthorne, before a skier-triggered avalanche carried him down the couloir, leading to fatal injuries. On April 17, members of the Summit County Rescue Team recovered his body from the site of the accident.
“All of these events have different aspects to them, and there’s always some common themes,” Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said. “What happened in this case is these folks triggered and got caught in a pretty small avalanche in a really dangerous place.”
The skiers took off from the Willow Creek trailhead at about 8 a.m. and ascended the southeast face of the slope to the summit, stopping to check for signs of instability along the way. They descended on the north side of the peak to the top of the Oh What Big Eyes You Have couloir, where they planned to make their way back down.
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The skiers discussed concerns about firm slabs of wind-drifted snow in the path, according to the center’s report. They decided to head down one at a time and meet back up at the bottom. Wiener made his way down first and stopped to wait in a break in the cliff wall on the skier’s right of the couloir. A second skier joined him soon after.
The third skier began making his way down the same path minutes later but triggered an avalanche that broke off just below his skis, sending a 100-foot-wide slide down the couloir. The break was 8-10 inches deep, according to the report.
The second skier was carried about 70 feet down where he came to a rest with his skis against a rock wall. He was uninjured, and he regrouped with the other skier to look for Wiener. The skiers picked up a signal from Wiener’s avalanche transceiver about 1,600 feet down the couloir but discovered that he didn’t survive the slide.
The skiers were able to contact the rescue team via text message.
Wiener was not buried. The cause of his death was multiple blunt force trauma injuries, according to Summit County Coroner Regan Wood.
Forecasters noted the avalanche was small relative to the path — classified as a D2 avalanche, a scale out of five that measures destructive potential. The path the avalanche took down the rock-walled couloir was deemed the most significant factor in the severity of Wiener’s injuries.
“With a similar avalanche in much gentler terrain, you can always be hurt in these slides, but it would have been hard to get killed,” Greene said. “It’s really having the slide in that specific terrain that led to this really unfortunate outcome.”
The avalanche broke at the interface between new and old snow layers, according to the center’s report. Greene said avalanches of this nature are common in the springtime, when the snowpack melts during the day and freezes at night, creating a firm surface.
“At this apex we’re at now, where we’re moving into spring conditions but still have snowstorms coming in on top of that, we end up with a really firm surface,” Greene said. “And when we get new snow on top of that, we get back into having avalanche problems. Whether it’s new snow from a storm or wind-loading, the new surface breaks and runs off the old surface. It doesn’t take much snow for that to happen. In this particular case, we had about a foot of snow over a few days with some good wind.”
The area’s avalanche danger is currently rated moderate, though officials are asking anyone heading into the backcountry to carefully pore over avalanche forecasts, which include information on snowpack, weather and what to expect at different elevations and bearings.
“Especially during these spring transitions, you need to pay attention to what the snow is going to look like,” Greene said. “Make sure that you’re considering not only your own risk but the societal risks if other people need to come and help you.”
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