Five stranded people were able to be delivered safely to a backcountry hut after a frightening avalanche and some new technology came together to prompt a backcountry rescue Tuesday night.
A group of five unidentified Aspen-area locals were on a two-night hut trip, and were traveling between the Barnard and Opas huts Tuesday when a large avalanche was triggered near Taylor Pass, according to Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy Adam Crider. No one was caught in the slide, but the incident “kind of freaked them out,” Crider said.
The group decided to bail on the Opas Hut and head for home via the Express Creek drainage, but encountered more avalanche debris there, Crider said. The group decided to dig a snow cave near the intersection of Richmond Ridge and Express Creek roads and hunker down for the night, Crider said.
At a certain point, as temperatures dropped and winds picked up, the group decided to call for help.
One of the people in the group had a next-generation personal locator beacon, which allows the user to exchange text messages — using a satellite signal that can be connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone — with an emergency communications center run by a monitoring company connected with the device. That company contacted the Aspen-Pitkin County Communications Center around 5 p.m., according to a press release.
Crider said the locator beacon was new to the stranded person, and after sending a text to the locator beacon’s monitoring company, two-way communication became difficult. Crider speculated that the person may have turned the messaging service off, and was unable to provide authorities with further information about the nature of the emergency or what kind of help was needed. The sheriff’s office also attempted to communicate with the party via the satellite-text system, but was unsuccessful.
Mountain Rescue Aspen sent five snowmobiles into the field and was able to locate the group at around 11,000 feet in elevation. Using snowmobiles, rescue personnel began ferrying the group back to the Barnard hut, where they stayed the night.
Conditions were difficult in the area, causing the two-man snowmobiles to continually get stuck in the blowing, deep and heavy snow, Crider said.
“The [snowmobile] tracks were getting covered up by the wind almost immediately,” Crider said.
However, using a larger “powder sled,” everyone was able to be delivered to the Barnard Hut for the night around 11 p.m. The group planned to return to town on Wednesday, Crider said, adding that he is looking to interview the subjects to get a better understanding of what happened.
Mountain Rescue Aspen was out of the field by about 3:45 a.m., Crider said.