- Location: Rapid Creek, southwest of Marble
- State: Colorado
- Date: 2023/03/17
- Summary Description: 3 backcountry tourers caught, 2 injured, 1 buried and killed
- Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer
- Primary Travel Mode: Ski
- Location Setting: Backcountry
- Caught: 3
- Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 0
- Partially Buried, Critical: 1
- Fully Buried: 1
- Injured: 2
- Killed: 1
- Type: SS
- Trigger: AS - Skier
- Trigger (subcode): u - An unintentional release
- Size - Relative to Path: R2
- Size - Destructive Force: D3
- Sliding Surface: O - Within Old Snow
- Slope Aspect: E
- Site Elevation: 12450 ft
- Slope Angle: 44 °
- Slope Characteristic: Planar Slope,Unsupported Slope,No Trees
The avalanche occurred on an above treeline, east-facing slope about one mile south of Chair Mountain, southwest of the town of Marble. It was a very large soft-slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by a group of backcountry tourers. It was small relative to the path and produced enough destructive force to bury and destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a wood frame house, or break a few trees. (SS-ASu-R2-D3-O). The avalanche broke four to six feet deep, 400 feet wide, and ran 2,500 vertical feet over three distinct cliff bands, nearly reaching Rapid Creek in the valley bottom.
Backcountry Avalanche Forecast
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) forecast for the area including the Rapid Creek drainage for Friday March 17, 2023, rated the avalanche danger at CONSIDERABLE (Level 3 of 5) at all elevations. Storm Slab avalanches with a likelihood of Likely were highlighted on all aspects and elevations with an expected avalanche size Small to Large (up to D2). The summary statement read:
You can easily trigger a large and dangerous avalanche where you find more than about 10 inches of recently fallen or wind-drifted snow. Look for and avoid areas where snow is drifted like steep slopes below ridgelines and convex rollovers, and on the sides of gully features. Shooting cracks and collapsing are obvious signs of instability and are an indication to move to slopes less than about 35 degrees as a safer travel option.
The Schofield Pass SNOTEL station, located about 12 miles east of the accident site, recorded near continuous snowfall starting in late November and lasting through March 2, 2023. On March 11, 2023, after over a week of dry, sunny days, a series of atmospheric river events began impacting the area on southwest flow. The snow water equivalent (SWE) increased 5.8 inches between March 10 and 17, 2023, bringing the total SWE to 131% of the 30-year (1991-2020) median SWE.This translated to around five feet of recent storm snow in the Rapid Creek drainage in the week preceding the accident.
The day of the avalanche was partly cloudy with a light northeasterly breeze and temperatures in the mid 20s Fahrenheit.
Snowfall throughout the season built a deep and stable snowpack. Persistent weak layers were no longer a concern by late January. After late January, the avalanche danger was driven by new snow instabilities and quickly rose and dropped with each passing storm.
A melt-freeze crust formed on the snowpack surface on most slopes during the early March dry spell. A thin layer of faceted snow developed around the crust once it was buried on March 10, 2023. The CAIC documented 48 avalanches breaking on facet/crust layers in the area around Rapid Creek in the week leading up to the accident. In the four days prior to the accident, backcountry tourers triggered four large (D2) avalanches and one very large (D3) avalanche in drainages surrounding Rapid Creek.
Events Leading to the Avalanche
Three backcountry tourers (Rider 1 and Skiers 2 and 3) met near the Marble airstrip on the morning of March 17. Rider 1 traveled on a split board, while Skiers 2 and 3 used alpine touring skis. All three carried avalanche safety equipment, and the two skiers wore avalanche airbag backpacks. Skier 3's dog accompanied them. The three often traveled in the backcountry together and had been touring partners for several years.
They planned a "scouting mission" in the Rapid Creek drainage to figure out access for future outings. On March 17, they initially planned to travel up the main drainage, ascend lower-angle northerly-facing slopes, and then descend their route. They left the trailhead around 7:30 AM and reached the upper portion of the drainage around noon.
Visibility was better than the three expected. Collectively they decided to deviate from their original plan and ascend east-facing slopes to treeline, where they would reassess. Terrain features partially blocked their views at treeline, and they discussed and continued up a ridge past several points where they could still descend the lower-angle, northerly-facing slopes. All group members expressed reservations at various points about how to continue towards their objective, but would collectively decide on a path forward.
They reached a stopping point about 11,800 feet in elevation. Skier 3 said the group was "super psyched from the views, the terrain, and the conditions." Their discussion changed from discussing a reconnaissance mission to ascending to an unnamed summit on the main ridgeline, touring south, and descending lower-angled slopes in the upper end of the drainage. Rider 1 and Skier 3 expressed some concern about continuing, and Skier 2 had reservations about possible wind loading on the easterly-facing terrain. They discussed, devised a plan, and decided to continue upward.
Rider 1 began breaking trail, putting switchbacks up the easterly-facing slope close to the ridgeline. Skier 2 began ascending after Rider 1 had made about five switchbacks. Skier 3 followed. The skiers caught up to Rider 1 around 3:00 PM. All three were within a few switchbacks of each other, 10 to 20 feet below the main ridgeline. Skier 3 said they heard a collapse that "sounded like a bomb went off and everyone froze."
Skier 3 said "the whole slope fractured and there was nothing we could do.” The two skiers triggered their airbags. Skier 3 immediately reached for his dog, but was swept off his feet. He said the avalanche "felt like getting thrown around in a washing machine and I had no control. I remember being airborne as I went off cliffs. I was able to wiggle as the avalanche was slowing down and felt I was close to the surface.” The avalanche swept Skier 3 about 2500 vertical feet, the entire length of the slope, and over three cliff bands. When the avalanche stopped, debris covered his face, but his right hand was free. He cleared snow from his face within a minute.
The avalanche carried Skier 2 down the face and over the three cliff bands. The avalanche ripped his airbag balloon from his pack. Skier 2 was completely buried when the avalanche stopped.
Rider 1 sustained head injuries in the avalanche and does not recall details. He faintly remembered being airborne over a cliff and pushed around violently. He used ski poles to self-arrest about 1700 feet below the crown, above the lower two cliff bands.
Skier 3 cleared the debris from his face and yelled for help. There was no response. He began to dig himself free. Progress was slow due to intense pain in his free hand that doctors later determined was broken. It took about an hour to free his other arm. At this point Skier 3 saw Rider 1 about 1000 feet above him. Skier 3 screamed for help and made voice and radio contact with Rider 1. Rider 1 kept repeating himself, saying he was really messed up. Rider 1 zigzagged down the hill until he disappeared into the trees. After 10 to 15 minutes, Skier 3 realized Rider 1 was not coming in his direction.
Skier 3 resumed his digging. He struggled free of his backpack after about three hours, and was finally able to access his equipment. He triggered the SOS on his InReach at 5:55 PM, alerting the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office. With his shovel, it took about 30 more minutes to free himself from the avalanche debris.
Skier 3 began a transceiver search for Skier 2. He found a signal uphill of his burial location. Avalanche debris clogged his avalanche probe and made it inoperable. Skier 3 dug at the lowest reading of his avalanche transceiver. About four feet below the surface, he found nothing but Skier 2’s transceiver. It had been ripped from the pocket on Skier 2’s bib ski pants during the avalanche, and was only connected by the lanyard.
Fighting pain, exhaustion, hypothermia, and frostbite, Skier 3 made the difficult decision to leave the accident scene on foot. He lost both skis in the avalanche. He walked on down Rapid Creek and found their tracks about half a mile from the avalanche debris. Skier 3 had limited communication with emergency responders through his InReach and was unsure if help was coming that night. Shortly before midnight, and three-quarters of a mile from the accident site, he needed to rest. He dug himself a small shelter under a tree. He heard a helicopter around 12:40 AM on March 18. After several sweeps up and down the drainage, a Flight for Life helicopter located and rescued Skier 3 at 1:05 AM. He was immediately flown to Aspen Valley Hospital where he arrived with a core body temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rider 1 does not remember communicating with Skier 3 after the avalanche. He recalled walking through the snow with one split board ski on while the sun was setting. He remembered hearing and seeing a helicopter while walking through water in the deep ravine near the bottom of Rapid Creek. He eventually reached Gunnison County Road 3 leading to Marble. He turned towards State Highway 133 heading towards a house where he knew the resident. He walked about three miles along the road, past several houses, and knocked on the door of the familiar house around 3:00 AM. They brought him inside and warmed him up. Rider 1 called his partner at 3:33 AM and told her what happened. An ambulance took Rider 1 to the hospital shortly after.
Shortly after daybreak on March 18 the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office and West Elk Mountain Rescue began day two of the rescue and recovery operation. They used a helicopter from CareFlight of the Rockies to fly CAIC staff and a member of Aspen Mountain Rescue to the avalanche and search for Skier 2. Rescuers started a transceiver search at the last-transmitted location of Skier 2’s InReach. They quickly found the transceiver in the hole that Skier 3 dug the previous day. Rescuers probed in the area around the transceiver. The transceiver was not on Skier 2’s body but the lanyard was still attached. They found Skier 2 buried under about three feet of avalanche debris.
Rescuers saw dog tracks leaving the avalanche debris below the second cliff band and closely following the skin track down the Rapid Creek drainage. Other searchers confirmed dog tracks exiting Rapid Creek through the ravine and onto Gunnison County Road 3. As of the publication of this report, the dog has not been located.
All of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate are tragic events. We do our best to describe each accident to help the people involved, and the community as a whole better understand them. We offer the following comments in the hope that they will help people avoid future avalanche accidents.
This was a very experienced group of backcountry travelers with varying levels of advanced recreational or professional avalanche training and years of experience. The group’s original plan was to avoid steep, loaded slopes and ski lower-angle, north-facing terrain. They discussed the recent large to very large avalanches.
While they were traveling that day the conditions were a little different than they expected. The quality of the snow on the north-facing slopes they planned to descend did not look as good and the visibility was better than they expected. During the day their discussions gradually morphed and their plan changed from a reconnaissance objective to a “I think we can summit” goal. Despite expressing reservations about continuing upwards, the group members mutually convinced each other to proceed given that they encountered no signs of instability and the snow looked very appealing. Making on-the-fly decisions to enter more consequential terrain in the field is a factor in many avalanche accidents. Groups tend to have better outcomes when they stick to the objectives they selected during the planning process - separate from the emotional pulls that good weather and fresh snow can induce.
Before the final climb up to the unnamed summit, the group discussed the risk of exposing all three people on the slope. They agreed to space out, but the spacing was compromised as Skiers 2 and 3 caught up to Rider 1 who was breaking trail. Had they maintained their intended spacing, it is possible the whole group would not have been caught in the avalanche.
It is extremely fortunate that the avalanche did not kill all three people. Skier 3 and Rider 1’s separate survival stories are quite remarkable, and both came close to dying. Luck, fitness, and their will to continue in desperate circumstances allowed them to survive. Skier 3’s airbag likely contributed to a shallow burial, allowing him to quickly clear his airway.
Some of Skier 2’s equipment was damaged in the avalanche. He wore an avalanche airbag pack. He deployed it in the avalanche but the bag was ripped out of his pack during the violent descent. He also carried an avalanche rescue transceiver, but it was in a pocket on his bibs that closed with a flap and buckle. His transceiver came out of this pocket during the avalanche and was only attached to him by a thin lanyard. When the debris stopped, it was buried a few feet away from him. The manufacturers of avalanche transceivers typically supply a harness and often include recommendations on how to carry the rescue device. It is important to follow their recommendations and ensure the unit is in a secure location. The damage to Skier 2’s equipment is a good reminder that safety equipment can reduce, but not eliminate, the consequences of getting caught in an avalanche.
We would like to acknowledge all of the groups that contributed to this search, rescue, and recovery effort. Most of these groups are staffed by volunteers and they are all integral to backcountry safety in Colorado and our ability to collect and distribute information on avalanche accidents: Gunnison County Sheriff, Colorado Search and Rescue Association, Mountain Rescue Aspen, West Elk Mountain Rescue, Crested Butte Mountain Rescue, Flight for Life, Careflight of the Rockies, and High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site. We apologize to anyone we missed.