Remembering ‘The Big One’ |

Remembering ‘The Big One’

BOB BERWYNsummit daily newsSummit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Kristin Anderson

Share your story:Do you recall the 1987 Peak 7 avalanche? Share your stories by clicking the “comments” button at the top of the pageSUMMIT COUNTY – It started out as a routine winter day in Colorado’s Playground. Breakfast joints dished up plates of eggs and bacon, ski lifts rolled up the mountain and thousands of skiers swooped and carved their way down local slopes, including dozens of powder seekers making the short, legal out-of-bounds jaunt from the Breckenridge Ski Area T-bar to Peak 7, then an un-patrolled backcountry stash.But at about 2 p.m. that day, everything changed. A massive slab of snow broke loose and blasted down the entire face of Peak 7, catching eight skiers unaware and triggering one of the biggest avalanche search and rescue missions ever in Colorado, involving hundreds of volunteers and professional rescue workers from around the country. By the time the last body was recovered – four days after the slide – crews had tallied 6,200 man-hours of time.Martin Donnellan, 19, and Alexander Cates, 17 (both from New York) and Paul Way, 23, and Nicholas Casey, 22 (New Zealand citizens living in Breckenridge at the time), were killed in the snowy torrent. Four other skiers, including then-Breckenridge resident Richard “Mongo” Gale, were caught by the slide but survived.This Sunday, Feb. 18, marks the twentieth anniversary of the slide that killed four people, and many locals who were involved with the ensuing recovery operation still have vivid memories of the day.”I was working at the base of Peak 9, talking with a friend when I heard about it,” said Breckenridge ski patrol crew leader Nick Payne. “I remember thinking, where you do you start … It just looked overwhelming at first. Quite honestly, there could have been 30 people caught,” Payne said, referring to the amount of skier traffic on Peak 7 – despite a series of sharply worded avalanche warnings in the weeks and days before the slide.”I was living in a little log cabin near Frisco,” said search and rescue veteran Dan Burnett. “It was a call like I’d never heard before,” he said, explaining that often there is some ambiguity with avalanche reports. It’s often unclear whether someone has been caught or not. But that was not the case with the Peak 7 slide. The Breckenridge ski patrol was the reporting party, and there was no doubt that a major rescue effort would be needed.”The dispatcher asked, ‘Who should we call?’ I said, ‘Everybody!’ ” Burnett said, explaining that over the course of the next few days, teams from around the country arrived in Breckenridge to help with what turned into a grim body recovery effort.The set-upIn February 1987, ski patrollers and avalanche experts were equally sure that conditions were ripe for a deadly slide.”We knew it was possible, but couldn’t imagine it,” said assistant Breckenridge ski patrol director Joe Holland, who was a third-year patroller working at Peak 9 at the time. “I was headed down Sundown, on my way to a wreck,” Holland said, explaining that the ski patrol had a special code – a 10-100 – for a large avalanche.

When that call came across the patrol radio band, Holland said the ski patrol started to close and sweep Peak 10, shifting all available resources toward the north, leaving only a skeleton crew on the rest of the mountain.The snowpack was fairly typical, that is to say sketchy, for mid-winter in Summit County, said Nick Logan, a forecaster with the Summit County Avalanche Office (part of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center). On and off snows and cycles of wind and extreme temperature fluctuations built layers of slabs sandwiched around cohesion-less depth hoar, or sugar snow. In their morning briefings, patrollers started talking about when, not if, the Peak 7 bowl would slide, and how, if and when to proceed with a rescue in the area – a potentially risky operation given multiple avalanche paths and intersecting run-out and deposition zones. Burnett said ski area execs (then under different ownership) even suggested that the patrol wouldn’t respond to an accident outside the resort boundary. Logan described it as a “time of tension” for Breckenridge patrollers. The ski area was under no obligation to respond to an out-of bounds slide, “yet the patrol was the closest trained rescue organization and felt a moral obligation to help in the event of a serious accident,” he wrote.Logan was a Breckenridge ski patroller in 1987 and had spent part of that day monitoring skier traffic heading from the T-Bar to Peak 7. The majority of skiers had no avalanche knowledge and “knew even less about backcountry protocol and etiquette,” Logan wrote in a report summarizing the Peak 7 disaster. Most of the skiers disregarded basic avalanche safety procedures, skiing without transceivers and shovels.

Logan said it was not unusual to see several people exposed in the bowl at one time, often with other skiers cutting above them. All those factors combined to create cause for “great concern” among the pro patrollers at the area. There were several close calls in the area in the weeks preceding the big one.Logan said every effort was made to “stave off the inevitable.” The CAIC and the ski patrol held an avalanche awareness seminar Feb. 11, and local newspapers, radio and TV stations all ran articles and public service announcements, as well as interviews with ski patrollers about safety precautions. Closing access from the ski area to the adjacent backcountry seemed to be the only sure-fire way of averting a deadly slide, but the U.S. Forest Service at the time maintained an open boundary policy.Finally, on Feb. 17, the day before the slide, the ski area put up a bluntly worded sign at the access point, warning that three skiers had already been caught in slides on Peak 7 since Jan. 1, and that the terrain shouldn’t be considered safe even with tracks visible in the area. Several feet of snow fell in the weeks leading up to the slide and westerly winds of 15-30 miles per hour were not uncommon. The stage unfortunately was set.In tomorrow’s Summit Daily: The slide, recovery efforts and the aftermath. Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at 7 Bowl Avalanche Tragedy – The Real StoryWhen and Where: 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18; The Village in Breckenridge, Forest Room.What: Nick Logan and Brad Sawtell of the Summit County Office, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, will present a slide show on the Peak 7 slide that killed four people in 1987. Proceeds to benefit local avalanche forecasts and education.

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