Avalanche report: Eagle man died after being swept over 75-foot cliff
Eagle County resident Gary Smith, who died March 22 after being caught in a small avalanche in the backcountry near Beaver Creek Resort, was swept over a 75-foot cliff, according to a final report on the accident by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
At the time of the accident, Smith and a partner were skiing in an area known as Sanctuary Chute, a steep northwest-facing slope below treeline. Skiers often access the backcountry zone by leaving Beaver Creek from the top of the Larkspur Express chairlift. The avalanche center report noted that the ski area boundary is “permanently closed” in that location.
After arriving at the top of the chute and assessing the snowpack, Smith descended the skier’s left side of Sanctuary Chute and took four to five turns before dropping out of view of his partner, according to the report. The partner then saw a “powder cloud” and believed there had been an avalanche.
The partner began to descend to the right of Smith’s tracks, triggering and escaping another small slide. The partner then made their way down to the bottom of the cliff band and began searching for Smith, who was fully buried, according to the report.
Using an avalanche transceiver, the partner found Smith under about 2 feet of snow, determined he had died and then called 911.
According to the report, the avalanche danger was moderate near and above treeline and low below treeline on the day of the accident, with the avalanche forecast noting wind slab and persistent slab avalanches as problems backcountry users might encounter.
The report described the snowpack in the area as “thin and weak,“ saying that investigators ”found it was easy to push their ski poles the entire way through the snowpack,“ which they estimated at 40 to 50 inches deep.
The slide broke in a layer of depth hoar near the ground that formed in the fall, and although the slide was small relative to its path — running 3 feet deep, 25 feet wide and 40 feet long — terrain features in the area ultimately resulted in a deadly slide, according to the report.
“Traveling above terrain traps such as cliffs or trees always increases the chance for a bad outcome if you are caught in an avalanche,” the report stated.
Smith is the fifth Eagle County resident to die in an avalanche this season. In February, three Eagle residents were killed in a slide near Ophir Pass outside Silverton and a Vail man was killed in an avalanche in East Vail, outside the Vail Mountain ski area boundary.
It had been almost five weeks since Colorado had had an avalanche death after a particularly bruising stretch that saw six skiers and snowmobilers killed in February. A warming trend and weak snowfall had reduced avalanche danger, with layers of weak snow bonding into a stronger base.
The U.S. is enduring a deadly backcountry season, with Smith’s death marking the 35th avalanche fatality this season. That tally includes 20 skiers and snowboarders, eight snowmobilers and five climbers. In Colorado, the 12 men killed include 10 with many decades of experience in the winter backcountry. And they all were older, between 37 and 69 years old. The average age was 46, compared with the U.S. average for the past three decades of 33.
March and April are big months for backcountry travel and avalanches. In the past 10 seasons, 72 skiers and snowmobilers have been caught in avalanches recorded by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in March and April, with 20 killed.
The Colorado Sun contributed to this report.
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