A 26-year veteran of the Snowmass Ski Patrol was killed in an avalanche Sunday while skiing in a permanently closed area of the Hanging Valley Wall, marking Colorado’s first avalanche-related death of the winter.
Patricia “Patsy” Hileman, 49, of Snowmass Village, was skiing alone in an area known as Ship’s Prow Glades, near the Upper Ladder section of the Hanging Valley Wall, according to an Aspen Skiing Co. press release. The wall includes some of the most extreme terrain in Snowmass, and sections of it opened for the first time of the season last week.
While skiing, Hileman triggered a small slide and was swept over a cliff, according to SkiCo’s statement.
Ship’s Prow is near a large cliff band located skier’s right of the Upper Ladder run, SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said.
“It’s not safe for the public to ski,” he said, explaining its permanently closed status.
Hileman, who was working Sunday, was overdue at her station and a search was initiated at 12:45 p.m., according to the company’s statement. She was located by patrol at approximately 1:23 p.m. and medical treatment was initiated immediately. She was pronounced dead at the scene from unspecified causes at 1:37 p.m. and transported to the Snowmass Clinic. The Pitkin County Coroner’s Office released her identity around 9 p.m. Sunday after notifying her next of kin.
“This is a shocking and tragic accident that deeply affects everyone in the company,” SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan said in a statement. “Our deepest sympathies and condolences are with her family and friends at this time.”
SkiCo is conducting an internal investigation into the accident, Hanle said.
Hileman had been with the Snowmass ski patrol since 1986, according to an email that Kaplan sent to SkiCo employees.
“Patsy was passionate about her job, her co-workers and skiing,” Kaplan wrote in the email. “She loved being in the mountains and on her days off, she could typically be found on the mountain or touring the backcountry. She was a true fixture on the Snowmass patrol and her absence will be felt by all of us.”
Kaplan thanked the Snowmass patrol for its “very professional response to the incident.”
“It is always difficult to lose a friend and co-worker, but over this holiday period, it is especially hard,” Kaplan wrote.
Hileman didn’t have any valley residents listed as family members in her emergency contact information on file with the SkiCo, Hanle said.
In 2010, she took fourth place for her age group in the Mother of All Ascensions, a winter uphill race on Snowmass Ski Area, according to official race results.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center rated Sunday’s avalanche danger in the Aspen zone as “considerable” on slopes near or above treeline facing northwest through east, and “moderate” on all other slopes. The organization posts an avalanche forecast and report to its website each morning, informing the public about snow conditions.
The area where Hileman died is near the site where skier Nicholas “Blake” Davidson was killed in December 2006. Davidson triggered a slide after launching off a cliff in the Rayburn’s Chute area, which was closed at the time. Davidson’s friends who were skiing with him that day, however, said they did not knowingly enter a closed area and never saw a closed sign.
Also on Sunday, skiers reportedly triggered a slide in the Pandora area outside the Aspen Mountain ski area boundary, but no one was caught. Someone from the group reported the slide to ski patrol, which went to the scene to confirm that no one was caught. The area was clear and ski patrol returned to the in-bounds terrain.