Dramatic account of fatal Flat Tops avalanche
February 27, 2017
There is no evidence that a Steamboat Springs man was wearing an avalanche beacon when he was buried for more than an hour Feb. 14 in the Flat Tops Wilderness.
According to the Garfield County Coroner’s Office, Jesse Christensen, 55, died from suffocation.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Thursday released its final report for the avalanche, which included information from Christensen’s friend, Sean Searle, who survived being caught in the initial slide as well as two additional avalanches.
The report details desperate attempts by Searle to rescue his friend, with whom he had been riding for many years. That day, the men were riding snowbikes.
Searle and Christensen were riding in the area of Sheriff Reservoir and exploring new terrain. The accident occurred in a wilderness area, where motorized vehicles are prohibited.
“They saw some old avalanches as they rode, but the slides were either small or old, and they did not adjust their plans because of them,” the report said.
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Searle was doing switchbacks while climbing up a slope near West Lost Lake, and he did not exactly know where Christensen was.
“About halfway across the slope on his climbing traverse, he heard a loud sound and saw two cracks shooting across the slope,” the report said. “He looked uphill and saw the snow above him moving. He took his hand off of the handlebar to pull the trigger on his airbag.”
Searle heard a hissing sound, but the avalanche airbag did not inflate.
He was thrown from his snowbike and landed in a seated position with his feet pointed downhill.
“Caught in the avalanche he went under the snow, but swam hard, using the back stroke and dolphin kicks, to get back on top of the moving debris,” the report says. “He was heading for a single dead tree, and he reached out and hooked it with his right arm.”
Searle watched the slide knock over several large trees.
Searle began searching and yelling for his friend and headed down to the debris field when another avalanche occurred. He was not caught in that slide.
Searle was wearing an avalanche beacon and tried to find Christensen’s beacon signal. He initially spent more than an hour searching for Christensen with a probe and shovel.
“He struck objects three times and dug into the snow to investigate, but each time, he found a tree, broken in the avalanche, buried in the debris,” the report stated.
Searle dug out his snowbike and rode and hiked to a place where he could get cellphone reception and send a message to his wife.
Unsuccessful, he returned to his snowbike, only to find it had been swept away in another avalanche.
He dug his snowbike out and rode to another location, where he was successfully able to send the message.
Searle returned to look for Christensen at the edge of the debris field in some trees. His probe hit something, and he found Christensen’s helmet about 18 inches under the snow.
After digging him out, he performed CPR for 20 to 30 minutes before stopping.
Searle waited about two hours at the accident site, then got back on his snowbike, where he came across presumed snowmobile tracks from Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers. He followed the tracks, but ran out of gas.
Searle began hiking and attempted to flag down a rescue helicopter.
He stomped out the word help with an arrow leading toward the direction he was hiking. The Classic Air Medical helicopter later found Searle.
He was flown back to the rescue staging area on the Dunkley Pass road for an emotional reunion with his wife.
“This accident involved only two people, but it was a fairly complicated series of events,” the report stated. “There were three avalanches and two separate companion rescue efforts before the organized rescue arrived. Every avalanche accident is traumatic for the people involved, but Rider 2 [Searle] had an especially difficult experience.”
CAIC wrote there are three main lessons to be learned from the event.
There had been patterns of avalanche activity in the area with a known weak layer of snow formed by crystals known as surface hoar.
Both riders had shovels, probes and airbag packs, but there was no evidence that Christensen had an avalanche transmitter.
“Given the depth that Rider 1 [Christensen] was buried, that he was wearing a full-face helmet, and was under relatively soft snow, there is a chance that wearing a transmitting transceiver would have led to a better outcome,” the report says.
The third lesson is that avalanche survival equipment cannot always be trusted, and those going in the backcountry should regularly test and practice with it.