avalanche

A photo of the avalanche Sunday that killed 40-year-old Peter Marshall. The red lines mark the crown faces of the two avalanches. (Photo courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

An avalanche in Upper Senator Beck Basin near Silverton claimed the life of a skier Sunday, Jan. 5. Peter Marshall of Longmont was one of six people participating in a Level 2 American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education Avalanche Course with the Silverton Avalanche School when the avalanche occurred. He was 40.

The initial avalanche caused a second. Marshall was trapped in the wreckage of both, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) preliminary report.

Although the group located Marshall and extricated him from 8 feet of snow, they were unable to resuscitate him, according to the report. Due to dangerous conditions from recent storms, search and rescue missions had not yet managed to recover Marshall’s body as of press time Wednesday afternoon.

Marshall’s death was the state’s first avalanche fatality of 2019.

“This tragic accident impacts all of us and our deepest condolences go out to the family,” according to a Silverton Avalanche School news release. “Our number one priority at this time is ensuring the safety and well being of the family of the victim and the students and staff involved in the accident.”

The CAIC updated the initial report, but the incident remains under investigation. More details will be made available to the public once the investigation is complete, according to officials.  

“It’s still preliminary. We’re following the same process we go through for all fatal accidents to understand and document the incident,” CAIC Director Ethan Greene said.

He added the final report could be released by the end of next week.

The CAIC initial report classified the avalanche size as a Class 2 on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the greatest) for both size relative to path and destructive force.

Colorado has recorded the greatest number of avalanche fatalities (275) of any state since the CAIC began collecting data in 195l. In the past several days, there have been 20 reports of human-triggered avalanches and more than 57 natural avalanches in Colorado, according to the nonprofit Friends of the CAIC.

Over the past 10 winters, an average of 27 people per year die in avalanches across the United States, according to CAIC. Backcountry touring — followed by snowmobiling — is the activity that has led to the most deaths.

Greene explained snowfall throughout the state this fall led to unstable conditions.

“We had an early snow this season and that often leads to a tricky avalanche season later on,” he said.

In the San Juan Mountains region and other parts of Colorado, the CAIC has documented reports of slopes that have slid multiple times — areas that reloaded with snow after a first avalanche and were triggered again, according to Greene.

“Avalanches happen in patterns,” he explained. “These are all signs and symptoms of the really weak snow we have near the ground. And that could continue throughout the season.”

Five of the 10 avalanche forecast zones are classified as “Considerable” (3 out of 5) on the CAIC forecast report issued by Chris Bilbrey as of press time. The others are “Moderate” (2 out of 5). According to the Friends of CAIC, this is when the majority of avalanche accidents happen.

Both the North and South San Juan regions are classified as Considerable (3) through today (Thursday), which is as far as the current forecast extends. Persistent slab avalanches are the current danger in the San Juans. This type of avalanche is difficult to predict and could occur “days to weeks after the last storm,” according to Bilbrey’s report.

On Tuesday, a skier triggered two avalanche slides in the South San Juan Zone by Wolf Creek Pass, though no one was injured, according to the CAIC report.

In his report for the South San Juans, Bilbrey wrote, “Recent snow thickened the slab above buried weak layers and these layers are now getting crushed under a significant load of fresh snow ... These avalanches can be large and possibly deadly.”

Also on Tuesday, a skier was partially buried in an avalanche in the North San Juans near Red Mountain Pass in the Spring Gulch region. The skier was able to clear his airway and remove the snow around his face with his unburied arm; his partner was able to rescue him from the snow with a shovel.

Since avalanche conditions change daily, Greene emphasized the importance of checking updated forecasts (avalanche.state.co.us) and being prepared before entering the backcountry — both by bringing proper equipment such as beacons and shovels, and by taking avalanche courses.