‘Survivor said he felt the whole slope collapse’
SUMMIT COUNTY – Brad Sawtell of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) spent Friday morning on Quandary Peak taking measurements from Thursday’s avalanche that killed 26-year-old Colorado Springs resident Jeff Uppendahl and sent his friend tumbling 1,870 feet down the mountain.Sawtell said the two men snowshoed up Monte Cristo Road and left their snowshoes at the base of the Blue Lakes Dam. They were wearing crampons and booting up the Monte Cristo Couloir route on the south side of Quandary when Uppendahl’s friend, who told Sawtell he believed he was 30 to 40 minutes ahead of Uppendahl, triggered the slide.The men were not carrying avalanche gear.Sawtell said the surviving man rode the slide out and ended up sitting on top of the debris pile near the dam. “It was the ride of his life,” Sawtell said. “I’ve seen people fall 20 feet with crampons on the feet and gouge their skin. He didn’t have a scratch on him.”The survivor scrambled to the top of the dam and called 911 about 12:30 p.m.Uppendahl’s body was found about 4:30 p.m. in more than three feet of snow.
Sawtell described the avalanche as “medium-sized,” with a fracture line of anywhere from eight inches to a foot. Atits deepest point, the debris measured two meters. The widest part of the debris field was about 165 meters, or 540 feet, Sawtell said.On Thursday, the avalanche danger was at a “considerable” rating, with pockets of “high” danger in areas with drifting snow.The considerable rating means natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches are probable, said Nick Logan, also of CAIC.”The survivor said he felt the whole slope collapse,” Logan said. “That’s a pretty good indication that the snowpack wasn’t going to take much more.”A slope measuring 30 to 45 degrees is the typical range for slab avalanches to slide. Sawtell measured the steepest angle at 40 degrees and the lowest at 36.Logan said Quandary was particularly dangerous on Thursday because there had been a lot of drifting snow in the Tenmile Range and on Hoosier Pass, which increases avalanche danger. Quandary also has many obstacles, such as rocks and small drops, that can create a very long ride if somebody is caught in an avalanche on the mountain, Logan said.
“You not only ask yourself will an avalanche occur, but what will happen if it does occur?” he said.The searchWhen Summit County Rescue Group’s Mike Schmitt arrived on Quandary Peak Thursday afternoon, he felt somewhat overwhelmed.”It’s sort of intimidating when you first get in there and look at it. You say, ‘This is going to take forever to do this,’ but you focus on your job and cover as much ground as possible,” Schmitt said.Schmitt was one of about 40 rescuers and four avalanche dogs who spent the afternoon searching for Uppendahl. Patrollers from Breckenridge, Copper and Keystone, Alpine Search and Rescue, Park County Search and Rescue, Red, White and Blue Fire Department and Summit County Ambulance were all on-scene.As soon as the call for help came in, a Flight for Life helicopter picked up a ski patroller, avalanche dog and dog handler from Copper Mountain, before making the three or four minute trip to Quandary, Schmitt said. Shortly after, the helicopter was grounded due to heavy snow and rescuers were shuttled from the base area in on a snowmobile.
Crews on the ground arrived and began setting up a probe line, which entails rescuers inserting one probe into the snow about every foot, covering about 80 to 90 percent of the area. A depth change indicates when to start digging. “If feels different that what you’re normally hitting,” he said. “It sort of feels spongy and soft.” A dog picked up a scent at about 4:15 p.m., and rescuers dug down to Uppendahl, but were unable to resuscitate him. Schmitt said if the two men had beacons, shovels and probes, Uppendahl’s chances for survival would have been improved.”If you have the gear, you have so much better of a chance of being found,” he said, adding that 90 percent of people buried in avalanches are found within the first half hour of the slide by their partner or others on-scene.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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