The scene on Monday was a full-on blizzard. San Juan County was under a Winter Storm Warning. Visibility was deteriorating. CDOT had just closed down Red Mountain Pass due to increasing avalanche hazard.
Two Durango skiers decided to go backcountry skiing in the Deer Creek area on Coal Bank Pass that morning. But they had not checked the avalanche report prior to leaving. As they were exiting the creek to return to the road, the pair realized they were in the wrong spot but tried to make it down the slope back to U.S. 550.
“That is when the avalanche cracked on the slope, pulling one person over a 25-foot cliff,” said Jim Donovan, San Juan County Search-and-Rescue team leader.
After being knocked off his feet and unable to see in the powder cloud, the skier was reportedly in the air as he flew off the cliff and landed on the highway. Then he reported feeling snow hitting his back and burying him in an icy tomb.
He was wearing a device called an “AvaLung” which enables a person to “breathe” under the snow. His partner started down the slope and had to jump a 15-foot cliff himself before he was at road level and able to start searching with his beacon.
The slide had deposited a 200-foot wide pile of snow and debris on the highway, 8-10 feet deep.
San Juan County SAR and EMS were paged out at 1:37 p.m., Donovan said. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center Highway avalanche forecasters were on the scene just after the rescue.
“It was crazy,” Donovan said. “Red (Mountain Pass) had just closed due to ‘avvie’ hazard and all hell was breaking loose,” with several vehicles along the U.S. 550 corridor in San Juan County.
At Lime Creek, fortunately, out of total chance, Silverton resident Michael Barney, avalanche professional and board member of the Silverton Avalanche School, was driving back from Durango and was in the first vehicle blocked by the slide across the road.
He realized that an avalanche companion rescue was underway, jumped out of his vehicle, assessed the hazard, grabbed his rescue equipment and aided in the rescue.
“The partner had been shoveling for 10 minutes when Mike jumped in to help,” Donovan said. “Shoveling is an exhausting job and the skier companion was physically spent.”
It is estimated that the victim was buried for nearly 20 minutes before he was uncovered. He walked away unscathed.
The victim was saved by his ski partner and a bystander, Donovan said.
Most avalanche victims die from lack of oxygen within 12 minutes.
“The AvaLung device contributed to this victim’s survival,” Donovan said. “If he didn’t have that, it would have been a different story.”
Donovan is director of the Silverton Avalanche School.
As the avalanche rescue was unfolding, CAIC and CDOT crews were moving motorists and trucks to safe zones out of the avalanche hazard on Coal Bank Pass and closing the road.
“It is becoming increasingly common for backcountry riders to trigger avalanches onto open highways,” said Mark Gober of Silverton, forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“This event is the second one we have seen on Highway 550 in less than a year,” he noted.
Last winter a Silverton woman accidentally triggered a huge slide above U.S. 550 near Chattanooga. No one was injured in that incident.
Gober urged backcountry skiers to exercise caution.
“Please be very aware of where you are riding and think not only of the consequences that you and your touring partner might experience but also to those folks that might just be driving to grandmas house” Gober said.
“This was a worst-case scenario,” Donovan said. “And we had just done a table-top exercise with CDOT and emergency services. We’ve been preparing for such an incident.”
Donovan stressed the importance of checking backcountry avalanche forecasts prior to going out into the backcountry every day. http://avalanche.state.co.us/
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