Avalanche catches powder tour guide on backside of Aspen Mountain | SummitDaily.com

Avalanche catches powder tour guide on backside of Aspen Mountain

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

This photo posted on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website shows where a skier was caught on the back of Aspen Mountain in a slide Thursday. The man was a customer on Aspen Mountain Powder Tours. He escaped with a knee injury.

A guide with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours was caught in an avalanche on a north face of an area called McFarlane's on Thursday and carried about 400 feet downhill, according to a report by another powder guide on the trip on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website.

The male skier was never buried in snow and ended up on the surface, according to the report by guide Greg Shaffran.

"He was never submersed in the avalanche, but did get swept through some trees and suffered a knee injury," Shaffran wrote.

The accident occurred at about 11:20 a.m., according to Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. An Aspen Mountain ski patroller was working independently nearby, digging avalanche pits and checking conditions at the time, Hanle said. The patroller used a toboggan from the powder cat to haul the injured skier to Lud's Lane at the bottom of the Walsh's ski trail within the Aspen Mountain ski area. Other patrollers took the injured skier down Aspen Mountain where he underwent further care, Hanle said.

The name of the injured guide wasn't released by Skico. Hanle said he was in good condition Friday. The man didn't have any special gear that deployed and helped him stay on top of the snow. "He just stayed calm and stayed above the snow," Hanle said.

The cat-guided powder group was skiing a run known as Happy Face at an elevation of about 10,900 feet, the avalanche report said. The group was on its sixth run in the area and the third on the northeast aspect. Shaffran wrote in his report that there were no signs of instability on the slope when the powder-tour customers made other runs. They also skied the area Monday without incident, he said.

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"The person who triggered (the avalanche) was the 5th person to ski the slope, and when he did the fracture propagated aprox 20 feet to his left, 20 feet uphill, and 100 feet-plus off to the skiers right," Shaffran's report said.

The skier was never submersed on his 400-foot ride, the guide wrote. No one else was caught in the avalanche.

McFarlane's is south of the top station of the Silver Queen Gondola. Skico has an annual operating permit to use that part of the White River National Forest for its powder tours.

Hanle said the powder tours were operating Friday, but not in the area where the slide occurred.

Skico received permission from the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District to operate a snowcat on some backcountry slopes last week to do some track packing, which is designed to create a more stable base, reduce risk and preserve the snowpack.

An annual operating permit issued for Aspen Mountain Powder Tours by the Forest Service spells out conditions when track packing will occur, according to Aspen-Sopris district ranger Karen Schroyer. Skico must alert the Forest Service when it intends to perform the work. The cats cannot stray into designated wilderness below Richmond Ridge, she said.

Skico's annual operating permit says the track packing combined with skier compaction "allows Aspen Mountain Powder Tours to provide a higher quality experience at a much-reduced level of risk to our employees, guests and the public at large."

It track-packs by using one snowcat as an anchor for a second cat hooked up via a winch and wire cable. The winch cat lowers and raises itself on the steep slope. Skico's permit says the targeted area for track packing is McFarlane's Bowl.

"This process is only used during the beginning of each season and requires about three days," the permit says.

Hanle said the track packing didn't occur in the area where the avalanche was triggered on New Year's Day. "It's a rocky area where we can't get a cat in," he said.

The avalanche danger was rated moderate in the Aspen zone Thursday and Friday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

"Don't let the 'moderate' (Level 2) danger rating lull you into complacency. While natural avalanche activity is unlikely, it is possible for a person to trigger a large and deadly slide on many steep slopes," avalanche center forecaster Brian Lazar wrote Friday.

In the Gunnison zone, two separate groups triggered avalanches on steep, northeast facing slopes on Thursday, according to the avalanche center.

"One of these slides was triggered from 70 yards away. These are clear signs of persistent weak layers failing under the load of a person," Lazar wrote.

Backcountry travel turned deadly for a 39-year-old snowshoer from Colorado Springs on Wednesday. Christopher Thomas was killed in an avalanche triggered while he and two companions were snowshoeing up Grays and Torreys peaks near Georgetown. Thomas was caught in an avalanche on Kelso Mountain. His companions were not hurt.

scondon@aspentimes.com