Avalanche

This image of the Feb. 16 avalanche that killed Michael Goerne and Owen Green shows the debris field. The skiers were caught somewhere in the area of the dashed yellow line.

The Feb. 16 avalanche outside Crested Butte that claimed the lives of two valley men swept them 120 feet into a creek drainage and buried them in a debris field 8 to 15 feet high, a state expert wrote in a report released Sunday.

Michael Goerne, 37, of Carbondale, and Owen Green, 27, of Aspen, were killed in the slide that occurred on a route used to access a backcountry hut in the area of Pearl Pass Road. Training for the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse between Crested Butte and Aspen next month, Green and Goerne set out around 6:30 a.m., wrote Ben Pritchett, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

They triggered the avalanche approximately two hours later, “presumably [as] they were breaking trail across the slope,” the report says. “Given their burial locations and the trajectory of the avalanche debris, it is likely the two skiers were fairly close together in the middle of the slope when the avalanche released.”

It adds that many details are unknown because the accident, which happened on an open, 37-degree slope, was not witnessed. Green and Goerne were found with their skis still attached to their boots, and they had been using climbing skins.

They were reported overdue around 8 p.m. on Feb. 16, and “unfortunately Skier 1 and 2 were caught in the same avalanche,” Pritchett wrote.  

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Green had lived in Aspen since 2015, and Goerne was the founder and longtime coach of the Aspen High School lacrosse team. Both were well known and respected for their involvement in youth sports.

The CAIC had issued an avalanche warning on the morning of Feb. 15, a caution that expired at 8 a.m. the next day, with the state center still rating the slide danger as considerable at all elevations because of a very unstable snowpack.

“All of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate are tragic events,” the report says, adding that its goal is to describe each one to help the people involved and the community as a whole better understand them.

“We offer these comments in the hope that it will help people avoid future avalanche accidents,” Pritchett wrote.

The report says a common way to reduce the risk of avalanches to cross a snow-slide area one at a time.

“If only one of the two skiers was caught and buried, the other may have been able to perform a successful companion rescue, turning a horrible tragedy into a near-miss,” the report says.

Two periods of higher wind speeds loaded this particular slope, building a slab with approximately three times as much storm snow as compared to sheltered areas nearby,” Pritchett wrote.

Members of Crested Butte Search and Rescue on Feb. 17 saw four natural avalanches, slides that likely happened on Feb. 15, between the trailhead the men used and the accident site, the report says. Green and Goerne crossed the debris of two of those avalanches.

“The accident happened in the final hours of a multi-day storm that began Feb. 13 and ended on Feb. 16,” according to the report. “This storm deposited 1 to 2 feet of very dense snow in the CAIC’s Gunnison forecast zone.”