Investigations of fatal avalanche accidents are frequently forensic-type affairs carried out with the sort of steely emotional detachment you might expect of professionals who have seen it all before. Just as frequently, investigations reveal the missteps and mistakes of those directly involved in the avalanche.
That was not the case Monday morning near Loveland Pass, Colo., when investigators visited the scene of an avalanche—in Dry Gulch, off of Mt. Trelease, a popular backcountry skiing area located on the north-side of I-70 near the east entrance of the Eisenhower Tunnel— that swept away two experienced backcountry skiers Sunday afternoon, killing one of them.
"I don't think a lot of people realize how dangerous it can be up there, but these guys aren't in that class. They knew what they were doing, they were playing by the rules, but still they got bit," Dale Atkins, a longtime avalanche forecaster and professional who investigated the avalanche site Monday along with two specialists from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said in an interview with Powder.com.
Kyle Shellberg, 32, of Golden, a former ski patroller at Loveland Ski Area, was killed in the slide, according to officials. Justin Latici, 31, also of Golden, acted decisively to rescue and attempt to revive Shellberg; he sustained a leg injury.
The avalanche ripped out near tree-line (approximately 11,600-11,700 feet) on a north-facing slope. It carried both skiers about 400 vertical feet through steep, timbered terrain, according to officials. "It was basically a cross-loaded sub-ridge," said Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, who was also at the site. "It went right through the trees, so a pretty nasty slide to be in. It broke a bunch of small trees and it stepped down to the ground about 50 vertical feet or less from the crown."
Measuring 260-some feet across, the slide was four feet thick at its deepest, on the skier's left side. But on the skier's right, Atkins said, "It tapered off to maybe a foot [deep] and then to almost nothing because it got into talus-type slope."
Dry Gulch, in a different spot about a half-mile away, was also the site of an earlier fatal avalanche, in February 1995. Atkins, who is also a former longtime ski patroller at Loveland, said of Sunday’s accident, "It’s tough. It hits close to home. Kyle was a guy who was very safety conscious and very careful. He's certainly very well known and very well liked by the patrollers at Loveland."
"From what we could see, they were working the timber and the terrain very reasonably. … They came down the skier's left side initially and that snow was hard as a rock. In places, all you got was their edges; classic hard slab. Any ski pole test they may have done would've just hurt their wrists from trying to punch into it. It wouldn't even have penetrated. But as they got skier's right, the snowpack got thinner—and as folks know—thinner snowpack is weaker snowpack," Atkins said.
Added Greene, "It broke on a thin faceted layer in between two harder layers; kind of the Oreo cookie thing."
The CAIC's forecast for Sunday in the area was an overall "moderate" rating—a 2 on a rising danger scale of 5. "It's one of those situations," said Greene, "where there's a lot of places you can go and not trigger an avalanche. These guys found the spot where you could. But it's also the type of thing our advisories were talking about, how tree-line was maybe the most dangerous because the winds had been so strong; above tree-line, there just wasn't a lot of snow left."
CAIC investigators plan to follow up with Latici further regarding details of the pair's outing. Nevertheless, the accident highlights the finicky and unpredictable nature of Colorado snowpack, particularly in the early season.
Said Atkins, "The problem with hard slabs is they often hide the danger. … with this hard slab you wouldn't get any hollow sounds or whoompfing. It was too thick and the weak layer was too thin. But once the fracture propagates through the weak layer they go bigger than you think. And with all that big heavy slabby snow, that did no favors to them."
"How both of these fellows went down through some wicked terrain and one guy is OK, I mean he's beat up, but his buddy dies? They went down through the same sorta stuff," Atkins continued.
"This is the big problem with the 'moderate' avalanche danger rating," Atkins said. "You can still have pockets of avalanches or big avalanches in isolated areas; it can be really fuzzy. It's a very reasonable forecast by the avalanche center and very appropriate. And I doubt the skiers were getting any signs—no fresh avalanches, nothing to indicate instability. But the big problem was the big winds before Thanksgiving that created these slabs, and the snowpack hasn't strengthened since then; instead temperature gradients have been at work weakening things. And then you start talking about spatial variability—20 or 30 people could've skied down it until one person skied in the right place, or wrong place, and that's the one domino that sets the whole thing in motion and you end up in an avalanche."
"These guys were trying to do all the right things," Atkins continued, "and they were doing a pretty good job at it. But that's all you can do: manage the risk, not eliminate it."
"One of the things experienced skiers need to look out for is this tendency to think that trees give you some degree of safety. And it's not necessarily the case here—we haven't talked enough with the survivor—but once avalanches start in the trees, the trees become battering rams. Think about continuing on in the trees if you're concerned about avalanche danger. Just because there's trees doesn't mean it's a safer place for you to be." —Tim Mutrie