Lessons learned from a deadly Coloradao avalanche
Sunday marks the one year anniversary of Colorado’s deadliest avalanche in half a century. Five backcountry travelers were killed near Loveland Pass.
Among the dead were experienced backcountry snowboarders like Rick Gaukel.
“He often would say, to be challenging, there had to be risk to it,” says his mother, Mary Gaukel.
Rick Gaukel was a certified climbing guide with extensive avalanche training and “from the minute he was born, you just couldn’t slow him down or stop him from exploring,” his mother continues.
On April 20 last year Gaukel and four other skiers and snowboarders were killed when a massive avalanche swept over them only a few hundred yards from U.S. Highway 6.
Colin McKernan was skiing with a friend nearby and they saw the avalanche field down below.
“Where do you start? I mean, that was the worst feeling,” McKernan says. “So we just organized as a team, went out there and used our beacons to try to find some signals.”
McKernan had been invited up for the weekend by his co-worker Chris Peters. When he started digging, McKernan didn’t realize that Peters was among those fatally trapped in the ice and snow.
“It literally is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life,” McKernan says. “I mean it was like digging through concrete, it was pretty incredible, I bent my shovel trying to dig.”
McKernan and the others saved one snowboarder, and pulled several other bodies from the ice. He says it was clear immediately they were dead. The bodies were frozen and blue.
“It’s a shock,” McKernan says. “Because that same person you just saw a few hours beforehand, and they were vibrant and alive.”
The cruel irony of the situation is McKernan, Peters, Gaukel and the others were in the mountains for a fundraiser supporting avalanche safety. They had carefully planned routes in an attempt to be safe. McKernan says they were not thrill seekers. They just made a fatal mistake, triggering the avalanche.
“It’s a monster,” McKernan says. “A lot of people call ‘em dragons. If you wake up that dragon, you are not going to make it.”
That's especially true with what are called deep-persistent slab avalanches, which plagued the backcountry last year. With this sort of slide, the trouble starts in November when light snow forms a weak layer, followed by much heavier snow later in winter, which can can break off in massive slabs.
“Although these are tragic accidents, and they affect lots of people, they’re not unpredictable, and they’re not unavoidable,” says Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Green.
Green’s forecasters eerily predicted the type and general location of last year’s deadly avalanche, and posted a lengthy bulletin on their website, ending with the warning, “If you find the wrong spot, the resulting avalanche will be very large, destructive, and dangerous.”
Colin McKernan says he only glanced at the forecast.
“I still to this day wish I had read it word for word,” McKernan says. “But it’s in the morning, you’re running out of the house.”
Green is troubled that a group of relatively experienced backcountry travelers read that forecast and went out anyway.
“We’ve changed a lot of what we do in order to try to get that information across to people in a clearer way,” Green says.
Forecasts now put the danger front and center, not buried in technical jargon.
This has been another deadly season for avalanches in Colorado. Eight people have been killed, last season 11 died. Colorado leads the nation in avalanche deaths by a wide margin, partly because of the type of snowfall, and partly because so many people have quick access to the mountains.
Mary Gaukel, whose son Rick was killed near Loveland Pass, says he understood the risks.
“I would never ever chose to lose him, but to have him in a way that, where he was doing something that he loved and that was so deeply meaningful to him. There is some comfort in that.”