By any name, terrain west of Aspen Mountain can be dangerous for slides
Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecast map:
There is some debate about the proper name of the out-of-bounds area on the upper western edge of Aspen Mountain, but it’s indisputable the terrain has been deadly over the years.
Skiers have headed out of bounds into the steep gulches just below the upper terminal of the Ruthie’s chairlift for decades. The area is inviting because it has an open entry before narrowing into two primary gulches.
“I’ve lost count of how many people have been killed in there,” said Tim Cooney, a member of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol since 1978.
Marty Gancsos, 64, of Aspen, was killed in an avalanche in the gulch Monday.
Cooney, who is passionate about the history of Aspen and Aspen Mountain, said the area was once generally referred to as Ophir. It was the site of early prospecting in the Roaring Fork Mining District. Interest tailed off after lucrative strikes were made on the front of Aspen Mountain in the 1880s.
Ophir, or Ophir Gulch, seems to have fallen out of favor over the years among the ski community. Many backcountry adventurers know the terrain as Keno Woods and the broader area as Keno, Cooney said. The actual Keno Gulch is farther north, or downslope from the Ophir Gulch. Keno Gulch runs from the western ridge of Aspen Mountain to the music school campus on Castle Creek Road. A mudslide in the gulch buried part of the campus in debris in 1997.
An early history of Aspen by Warner A. Root, “The Men Who Led the Way Over the Divide,” noted that one of the early pioneers was Jim Egbert, who was known by the alias of Keno. Root’s history lesson was a featured article in the first edition of The Aspen Times on April 23, 1881. It couldn’t be immediately determined if Keno prospected the gulch that took on the same name.
John Walla, a longtime Aspen resident who teaches skiing and is a real estate agent, said the Keno name has erroneously spilled into Ophir Gulch in the modern era. Walla has worked with a landowner who owns property in the Keno Gulch area. As part of that work, he has researched the history of the names of the western side of Aspen Mountain from old mining maps. He provided a Google Earth map that shows the three very distinctive gulches and their basins, with Queen’s Gulch, the largest and farthest to the south, engulfing much of upper Midnight Mine Road; Ophir Gulch sandwiched in the middle; and Keno Gulch narrowing to where it spits out at the music school campus.
Keno Gulch is constricted by steep slopes and covered with dark timber. Ophir Gulch is more inviting to skiers because of the open chutes. Skiers and snowboarders typically bail out to skier’s left near the bottom of the gulch and hook into the first major switchback on Midnight Mine Road to exit the area.
Gancsos and a friend headed into Ophir on Monday afternoon after the Aspen-area mountains got pounded by a storm that deposited as much as 30 inches of snow on the slopes. It had been dry the previous six weeks, so the new snow rested on a rotten layer. The avalanche danger for the Aspen zone has been rated “considerable” at above, near and below tree line since the storm hit last weekend, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The allure of fresh powder tempted some skiers into the backcountry despite the risk. Aspen taxi driver Mike Gurchick said he picked up a party of four male skiers Monday afternoon just prior to the time the slide that killed Gancsos. As he was dropping them off at the Silver Queen Gondola, he got a call to pick up Marty and another person back at Midnight Mine Road. Gurchick returned to the road, but departed after they didn’t show up, he said. While leaving he encountered authorities responding to the avalanche report.
The Aspen Times files indicate the most recent prior accident in Ophir Gulch caught two skiers in a party of four Feb. 26, 2010. A slide broke at the feet of the two uppermost skiers soon after they entered the area from Aspen Mountain ski area. The slide caught the two other skiers below them. One skier made his way to the side of the snow while sliding down and latched onto a tree. The other skier was swept downhill about 100 yards, pinned against a tree and buried in snow. He was unburied before he suffocated, but suffered severe trauma to his chest, back and hands. Three of the men were from Telluride and the fourth from Boulder.
Cooney said a nearly fatal slide in the early 1970s provided the name for a specific line within Ophir Gulch. Then-local ski shop worker and ski bum Peter Barker was skiing alone when he was caught by a slide near the top of the gulch and taken for a ride all the way to the bottom. He was buried in snow up to his chest and suffered a punctured lung and broken ribs, according to Cooney. Barker made it to a tepee near the valley floor and was examined by a doctor in the neighborhood who made a special “tepee call,” Cooney said. Barker was advised to get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
The accident occurred in 1972 or 1973, according to Cooney. The story of his wild ride spread by word of mouth and the line was thereafter known by his name. A lot of trails, lines or backcountry points commemorate harrowing or unusual incidents that occur, Cooney noted.
“That’s how things get named,” he said.
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