An avalanche Saturday in the Aspen Mountain Powder Tours permit area on Richmond Ridge buried a person who was unharmed after being rescued by his skiing partner, and the Aspen Skiing Co. confirmed employees were scouting terrain prior to the season opening at the time.
Neither were seriously injured, and both staff members have returned to work, according to Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications. SkiCo operates the powder tours, which opened for the season Sunday.
The first skier, whose name has not been released, was carried at least 20 yards and buried at the base of a tree, according to a report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. His partner probed and dug out the man, who was conscious and uninjured at the time, the report says.
The reporting party for Saturday’s slide was Murray Cunningham, the CAIC website says. Cunningham is the SkiCo’s Powder Tours manager, according to the Linkedin website.
The report states the incident occurred as the two “were traversing one at a time out of McFarlane’s [a section of Richmond Ridge]. Skier one [released] the toe of the skier’s left side of the B Nose. He was carried 20 yards or so and buried at the base of a tree. Skier two performed a beacon search on the slide track. Located the burial site, probed and dug out.”
The incident was reported to CAIC around 3 p.m. Saturday, according to Brian Lazar, deputy director. Based in Carbondale, he said the avalanche danger on Saturday was rated as “considerable at all locations.” Conditions were ranked level 3 out of a possible five levels.
“It’s not a blanket ‘don’t go into the backcountry,’” Lazar said about the avalanche watch issued Saturday, but rather that mountain users “need conservative and cautious route-finding.”
Mountain Rescue Aspen was not requested to respond to Saturday’s human-triggered slide on the back side, according to Scott Messina, rescue leader coordinator for MRA.
“This avalanche, as well as the skier-triggered slide just below Loge Lift at Highlands ski area and other skier-triggered slides on Richmond Hill yesterday, are great reminders to all backcountry travelers that winter avalanche season is here,” Messina said Monday in an email.
Hanle also noted that on Saturday, “a snowboarder on Aspen Mountain triggered a small inbounds slide in a closed area.” It was discovered by ski patrol around 4 p.m. when patrol was doing its sweep of the mountain.
“The slide was not witnessed and occurred in the closed area between Northstar and the Gent’s Ridge chair. Patrol searched the slide area with probes, beacons and dogs as a precaution,” Hanle said. “If you are involved in or aware of a slide please notify ski patrol so they know everyone is safely out.”
Lazar said so far in Colorado this season, seven people have been caught in avalanches, though most are what he categorized as “on the small side.”
Referring to the Richmond Ridge incident, “This is the first burial we’ve seen this year according to our records.” He added that the CAIC is still gathering details as it works on a full incident report.
“Whenever people return home safely, that’s great news on our part,” Lazar added.
On Oct. 15 in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a climber sustained a broken pelvis from a self-triggered slide. He had to self-rescue. That’s considered the most serious injury yet this season from a slide, according to Lazar.
The season is setting up to be “one that can lead to prolonged avalanche problems in Colorado,” he said. An October snowfall that did not melt away became a weak layer for snow that fell consistently during November. Saturday’s instability was enhanced by strong winds, drifting snow and slab formation.
The worst year in Colorado for avalanche fatalities was 1993, when 12 people lost their lives, Lazar said.
On April 8, valley resident John Galvin died after being caught in a slide in Maroon Bowl, which is considered “side country” to the Aspen Highlands ski area boundary. Galvin’s partner was able to rescue himself and alert authorities about the avalanche.
The men who were involved in Saturday’s Richmond Ridge incident were prepared with avalanche beacons, shovels, probes and each other, Lazar said of the importance of skiing with a partner. He recommended taking an avalanche course to know how to properly use the equipment.
MRA’s Messina reminded that, “If travelers have not yet done so, it’s time for folks to break out their avalanche gear, practice with it and refresh themselves on smart travel techniques.”