CAIC officials shed light on fatal Clear Creek avalanche
Officials with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center spent the Thursday morning, Jan. 1, investigating the fatal avalanche that killed 39-year-old Christopher Thomas of Colorado Springs.
The slide occurred above tree line at around 12,000 feet on the east side of Kelso Mountain in Clear Creek County Wednesday morning, Dec. 31. Thomas and two others were snowshoeing on an existing skin track along a summer access road below a slope when the slide occurred. The group had planned to climb nearby 14,270-foot Torreys Peak.
The party was reportedly aware of the risk in the area they were traveling and had voiced concerns, but opted not to leave the trail that had already been broken by another party earlier in the morning.
The group was traveling one by one below a slope when the avalanche occurred. Thomas was the second in the group to traverse the section when the slope above him released.
Only two members of the group, Thomas and the woman he was traveling with, were wearing avalanche beacons at the time of the incident. The two survivors who avoided the slide were able to locate and dig Thomas out of the debris field using a single beacon, probe and shovel, but he was not breathing and had no pulse at the time they found him. The two were unable to revive him.
The Denver Post reported that Thomas had been buried for 15 to 20 minutes before he was found approximately 5 feet deep in the debris field.
“It was a pretty sad event,” CAIC director Ethan Greene said. Greene was with the Avalanche Center group that visited the site Thursday.
“They recognized that (avalanches) were an issue. It could have been easily avoided,” he said. Greene explained that the group could have broken a separate trail in a meadow a little farther away from the slope and would have avoided the danger.
“It’s a place that people often pack the skin track,” Greene said of the access road the group had traveled. “A lot of times roads are put in for summer travel. The summer route may not be a very good winter route.”
Another fatal slide had occurred in the same area in December 2005, killing an 18-year-old from Colorado Springs who was not wearing an avalanche beacon.
Earlier in the month CAIC forecasters had warned that traveling directly below avalanche terrain risked releasing a slide.
The CAIC had also forecast the avy risk level as considerable (level 2) the day of the slide, meaning there was a low risk for natural avalanches but human-caused slides were possible and heightened on some terrain features.
Greene described the slide as a persistent slab avalanche caused by a weak layer deeper in the snowpack.
The slide was roughly 100 feet wide and traveled 200-300 feet down the slope.
“It was a pretty small avalanche but a pretty deep burial,” Greene said.
Similar slides continue to pose a threat for northwest and north- through east-facing slopes.
Those particular slopes have a weak layer near the base of the snowpack due to early-season snow that did not melt. They will likely remain a concern through much of the season.
The CAIC’s final report on Wednesday’s incident is expected later this week.
The accident was the state’s first fatal avalanche this winter and third nationwide. Colorado averages six avalanche deaths a year. Last winter’s first fatal slide also occurred on Dec. 31. That slide took place on Parkview Mountain near Willow Creek Pass in Grand County.
For avalanche information visit http://avalanche.state.co.us/.
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