Report: Man who died in backcountry avalanche near Loveland Ski Area was alone, not wearing a beacon
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center published its report Wednesday on a fatal avalanche that killed a snowboarder near Mount Trelease earlier this week, providing new insights into the conditions in the area and how the slide occurred.
At about 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, Clear Creek officials were notified of an avalanche in the area of Mount Trelease, located north of Interstate 70 near Exit 216 to Loveland Ski Area. More than three hours later, rescue workers recovered the body of 57-year-old David Heide, who was snowboarding in the area alone when the avalanche happened.
Heide’s death represented the ninth known avalanche fatality in Colorado during the 2020-21 season, which is shaping up to be among the state’s deadliest ever. The 10th death was recorded later the same day. Since 1951, the most avalanche fatalities recorded in a single season is 12 during the 1993-94 season, according to the Avalanche Information Center.
“One of the things I think we should take away is just how dangerous of a winter we’re having,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Avalanche Information Center. “That was the ninth death of the year. We had another one that day, and we have someone missing right now. Very likely we’re looking at seven avalanche deaths this month, without having gotten through the month. So if anybody has not been taking this winter seriously, hopefully that changes, and they really pay attention to what’s happening in the state right now.”
According to the report, another snowboarder parked at the Dry Gulch/Mount Trelease trailhead at about 8 a.m. after Heide already had ascended. About an hour later, as the snowboarder made his way up the slope, he caught a glimpse of a steep face — locally called Pat’s Knob — and saw a large and recent avalanche in the area. Heide was nowhere to be seen, but the snowboarder did see a skin track higher on the slope.
Down below, two skiers also had arrived at the trailhead and started their ascent. At about 9:30 a.m., they noticed the avalanche at Pat’s Knob and called 911 to report it. The skiers then raced to the debris, where the snowboarder who first spotted the slide already had begun to search for buried individuals using his avalanche rescue transceiver. It was unclear to the impromptu rescue group whether anyone was buried in the slide, but they continued to search a large segment of the debris field, never getting a transceiver signal.
While Heide was wearing an avalanche airbag, he was not wearing an avalanche rescue transceiver, which likely would have helped the other backcountry users find him faster.
“It looks like we’ll have potentially three people getting killed (this season) that don’t have beacons on, or avalanche rescue transceivers,” Greene said. “If you’re not carrying the equipment, you should really just stay out of avalanche terrain.”
Deputies with the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office were able to identify everyone in the area and determine there was a missing person, Heide, based on the registrations of the cars in the parking area. After several calls to Heide’s phone went unanswered, the Sheriff’s Office was able to obtain his location using his phone signal, according to the report. At 11:43 a.m., the Alpine Rescue Team coordinator contacted one of the skiers to relay his coordinates.
Minutes later, the skiers spotted an avalanche airbag sticking out of the debris. They found Heide partially buried with his head under the snow. One of the skiers dug him out and cleared his airway but determined he wasn’t breathing and that he no longer had a pulse. Heide also had suffered traumatic injuries in the avalanche, so even a rapid recovery might not have saved him, according to the report.
Members of the Alpine Rescue Team and the Avalanche Information Center arrived at about 12:35 p.m. They continued to search the area but didn’t find anyone else in the debris.
According to the report, the avalanche ran about 500 vertical feet, the debris was generally 6-10 feet deep and the slide “produced enough destructive force to bury and destroy a car or destroy a wood-frame house.”
At the time of the accident, the avalanche danger was rated considerable at all elevations — in the middle of the information center’s danger scale — and it was considered “likely” that a large avalanche could be triggered. The center also had issued a special avalanche advisory for the area, warning backcountry users that avalanche conditions were unusual and that extra precaution needed to be taken.
The report notes that dangerous conditions throughout the season are in part tied to early snowfall followed by dry weather, which produced a weak, underlying layer of snow. The pattern repeated, and by the second week of February, “the snowpack contained several weak layers of faceted snow between harder, strong slabs of snow.” There were at least 201 avalanches in the Front Range forecast zone from Dec. 1 through Feb. 13, about 40% of which released on east-facing slopes near or above tree line, in similar terrain to where Heide’s avalanche was triggered.
“The type of avalanche that you’re likely to trigger is really dangerous,” Greene said. “People really need to think about that and make sure they are using their very best avalanche safety skills the rest of the winter. … That’s the main take home. Read the forecast, avoid the terrain we’re talking about and really evaluate your standard routes. Because of the year that we’re having, the routes that you’re used to taking may not be good routes this year. So it’s really kind of going back to the basics for avalanche safety.”
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