‘The Big One’- rescue, recovery
SUMMIT COUNTY – The enormous, deadly avalanche that thundered down the face of Peak 7 near Breckenridge 20 years ago was hardly unexpected. Perhaps the only surprise was the scale of the slide, which ripped across the entire face of the peak and left debris piled up to 20 feet deep across 23 acres.Though the terrain was outside the ski area boundary at the time, it was being skied on a daily basis. Ski patrollers and avalanche experts had been watching the slide-prone bowl carefully and monitoring use of the popular powder stash. Few, if any, skiers were carrying any search-and-rescue gear. Equally disturbing, skiers seemed to be all over the place, helter-skelter, with little regard for others who might be lower down in an avalanche path.”We’d been telling them for a while to either let us get in there do some explosives control, or to close it,” said Mary Logan, then a 10-year Breckenridge ski patrol veteran. “It was a nightmare waiting to happen.”Logan was riding up the T-bar with patrol director Kevin Ahern, watching skiers on Peak 7 when the mountain exploded. Avalanche technician Paul Miller was not far behind.”We were discussing it … and watching the two people skiing on the upper part when it slid. It was quite a sight. It was pretty amazing. Kevin immediately radioed, ‘This is it!’ I remember hearing the gasps from the people on the T-bar behind us,” Logan said. “A lot of them were probably heading over there for another run,” she said.The slide had been triggered from above, with one party of skiers unwittingly cutting loose the slab that trapped several others below. The skiers on Peak 7 were violating one of the cardinal rules of safe backcountry travel: Go one at a time in avalanche terrain and make sure you aren’t endangering people below you. Four people paid the ultimate price.”The size was actually a relief for us,” Logan continued. Because most of the bowl slid, the patrollers knew it would be easier to enter the area for an immediate rescue effort without subjecting themselves to significant risk of additional slides from above, she explained.
“We skied over and closed the gate. Paul skied into the area to assess. I turned around and yelled, ‘If anybody wants to volunteer, follow me,’ ” said Logan, who became the initial site commander. “I had a pencil and notebook and a radio to start the rescue operation.””Within an hour we had 80 people probing,” Logan said. But we didn’t know until the next morning how many people might really be buried. And with an avalanche that size, after a few hours, you know pretty much that it’s a body recovery operation. I didn’t sleep that night,” Logan concluded.Breckenridge ski patroller Joe Holland (now assistant patrol director) has similar memories. After tending to a wreck on Peak 9, he went over to Peak 8 to lead a search and rescue crew, organizing probe lines. “I went home knowing there were still people out there, buried under the snow,” Holland said, describing how shaken he felt at the end of the long, hard day.All-out rescue effortTrying to find buried avalanche victims is tricky enough using the latest directional beacons. Trying to find them using probes – especially in a 23-acre debris field – is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack while blindfolded. It’s painstaking, physical work: You line up a group of searchers shoulder-to-shoulder, each holding a long metal pole. You take slow, measured steps forward through the chunks of snow and ice, adrenaline surging, sucking gasps of thin, icy air. You push the pole down. Once on your left, then between your feet and once more on the right side. You try and feel resistance. Is it just a piece of hard snow or ice, or is it a body? It can be hard to tell the difference, even for experienced searchers.The first victim, 19-year-old New Yorker Martin Donellan, was recovered after two hours and eight minutes under four feet of snow.
Paul Way, a 23-year-old New Zealander was uncovered after about 21 hours after the slide under six feet of snow, and his Kiwi buddy, 22-year-old Nicholas Casey, was found an hour-and-a-half later, also about six feet deep. The last victim, 17-year-old Alexander Cates, also of New York, was entombed by the icy mass for 47 hours and 17 minutes before searchers were able to transport his body down the hill.’Ants in a sandbox’Nick Logan, a Breckenridge patroller at the time and now a forecaster with the Summit County Avalanche Office, said the rescuers looked like “ants in a sandbox” in the huge debris field.”Misinformation led searchers astray that first day, and to complicate matters, only one clue, a ski, was found on the surface,” Logan said.But access to the site via snowcat and snowmobile was relatively easy, enabling rescuers to stage supplies for what they knew would be a long, hard search. By 5:15 p.m., 200 rescuers were already on-scene, according to Logan, with long probe lines trying to sift and prod into the concrete-like snow.The search was called off at dark, but early the next morning, a helicopter dropped explosives on to the remaining snowfields next to the accident scene, triggering yet another slide. Avalanche dogs were sent in and given an hour to work alone but did not find any of the victims. Once again, the probe lines formed, trudging inch by inch over the neighborhood-sized field of frozen white. “What a surreal experience that day was,” said photographer Bob Winsett. “Just a few hours before, those guys were out there skiing, looking for powder, just like the rest of us. Then next thing you know, they’re buried in feet of snow and we’re looking for them.”
The search wore on, through the second day and the third, until finally, at 1:45 p.m., the last victim, young Alexander Cates, was found high in the debris field, also deeply buried.Through it all, all the rescuers and volunteers that responded recall the depth of support from the community. Web comments posted to the first part of this story attest to the same idea – how well Breckenridge and Summit County pulled together when the chips were down.”Two things that struck me: how huge that slide was and how well and quickly and well the community responded,” said Winsett. Everything that was needed appeared on scene, almost as if by magic; whether it was hardware, tents, food and drink, local businesses, families and individuals came through to provide rescuers with everything they needed. AftermathAside from a lingering sense of shock and sadness that may have dampened spirits the rest of the season for some, the Peak 7 slide also had very tangible impacts on how resorts and the Forest Service manage the boundary between permitted ski area terrain and the adjacent backcountry. Other avalanche accidents that season in Telluride fueled that same discussion.
At the time, the ski area boundaries were generally wide open, giving skiers unfettered access to National Forest lands within spitting distance of the ski lifts.”People could get into dangerous terrain legally and easily,” said ski patroller Holland.Working together, law enforcement officials, the Forest Service and the resorts clamped down hard on that access, especially in Summit County, where a Forest Supervisor’s closure was enacted around most of the resorts. At Breckenridge and Copper Mountain (A-Basin is the exception), backcountry access points were moved lower down the mountain, making it more difficult for casual yo-yo skiers to reach slide-prone terrain.The boundary rules are seen as an undue restriction by some, and there have been some recent calls to revisit those policies. But they have certainly helped contain what could have become a growing rash of inexperienced backcountry skiers putting themselves and others in harm’s way.”Ultimately, ski areas were encouraged to expand and incorporate out-of-bounds terrain, making for some of today’s most exciting, but safe, terrain,” avy expert Dale Atkins said via email.Atkins, who was overall site commander at the Peak 7 slide for more than two days, said the accident also prompted changes in the rescue community, as it pinpointed the need for greater statewide coordination. Atkins said the response also showed a need for more avalanche rescue dogs. At the time there was one avy dog in the county, Hasty, who was still a puppy at the time, being trained by Patti Burnett at Copper Mountain.The slide may have also been a watershed for avalanche awareness and education. Eleven people died in avalanches that winter, and the number of deaths had been climbing dramatically from late 1970s to the mid-1980s. After the Peak 7 slide, the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, along with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the U.S. Forest Service and other partners, created the Avalanche Backcountry Safety week (ABCs Week), a statewide effort that ran for many years and reached huge numbers of people, according to Atkins.Since then, the fatality rate has stayed about the same (six deaths per year) and even trended downward in the past few years – “Very impressive,” given the overall surge of Colorado’s population and the increased participation in backcountry activities, Atkins said.
And the effects are felt on a personal level as well, both by the friends and families of the victims and the rescuers, many who are still active in public safety work in Summit County today.”I got into search and rescue for the action,” said Dan Burnett, a mission leader who has seen his share of avy rescues and body recoveries in the last 20 years. Burnett went on to describe his interaction with the some of the families of the young men who died that fateful day.”They came out a year later. They hugged me and thanked me for all that we had done,” Burnett said. “It was really interesting to get to know the families,” he said, explaining that they offered to buy a new rescue truck for the local group. That vehicle is still in use today, marked with a dashboard plaque dedicated to the victims of the Peak 7 slide.As he spent time with them, Burnett realized that his dedication to the work was fueled not only by adrenaline, but by the way it enabled him to do something useful and positive.”I can really help people,” Burnett simply concluded.’The Big One’The average crown height (the distinct line at the top where the slab breaks away from the surrounding snow) of the slide was three to five feet, and eight feet at its deepest point. The fracture propagated along the entire ridgeline of Peak 7 for a distance of 1,600 feet, or 490 meters and raced down 1,120 vertical feet. It ran on classic avalanche terrain, with the starting zone about 32 degrees, and rolling over on to pitches as steep as 44 degrees before flattening out into a deposition zone where debris piled up to 20 feet deep.
Eight people were caught by the powerful surge of snow. Four died and the ensuing rescue and recovery operation involved hundreds of rescue workers and volunteers from around the country. Read about conditions leading up to the slide www.summitdaily.com/article/20070215/NEWS/102150072.Peak 7 Bowl Avalanche Tragedy – The Real Story When 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.Cost: The event is free and open to the public, but donations are accepted and encouraged and will directly fund the Summit County Avalanche Center, helping the office stay open later into the season this year.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.
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