Lessons Learned After Avalanche Deaths?

Apr 24, 2013

Sheep Creek in December 2008
Sheep Creek in December 2008
Credit Photo by Dale Atkins/RECCO

This week is a tough one for many in Colorado’s backcountry community. Friends and family are getting used to the idea that five men died in an avalanche near Loveland Pass last weekend. Its the worst event of its kind in Colorado in a half a century.

Adam Schmidt is editor in Chief at Snowboard Colorado Magazine. He was good friends with one of the victims, Gypsum resident Joe Timlin. Schmidt got the call Saturday night that Joe was gone, killed in the avalanche.

“My first reaction was disbelief. Um. I was hoping it was a terrible joke.”

They knew each other through work. Timlin was a snowboard rep, and a key organizer for a backcountry event over the weekend. The media sponsor was Schmidt’s magazine...And a few days later, Schmidt says the accident has been a powerful lesson.

“It’s really hit home. These guys knew what they were doing. They had all the right equipment. But the size of that avalanche they could have done absolutely everything right and it still could have turned out the way it did."

Ethan Greene is Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The organization reviews avalanche accidents and tries to figure what caused them. So far, this is what they’ve got.

"We know that there was a group of six backcountry tourers, some on skis and some on snowboards, and some on splitboards -- or snowboards that you hike up on skis and then descend as a snowboard -- that left Highway 6 on loveland pass on the sheep creek.  All six were caught in the avalanche, and five of them lost their lives."

Greene says the accident killed the most people in an avalanche in Colorado since 1962. The CAIC expects to put out a full review of the accident later today, Tuesday April 23rd, or Wednesday. But even after experts know what made the snow slide on Saturday, Ethan Greene says there are bigger questions his organization is grappling with.

"We’d go back and look at our advisories, and the information we were putting out, we were describing this sort of situation. And so how could a group that was well prepared, knowledgeable, hopefully had looked at the advisory, still get involved in an avalanche like this?"

Greene says the CAIC may look to other kinds of disasters... like tornadoes or hailstorms... to better warn people about the dangers of being in the backcountry.

“Are there ways that we could present it better, you know are there ways to make it easier for people to get, digest, apply. These are all things that in the avalanche world we’ve been wrestling with for a while now, and I think really putting it at the forefront of our public safety efforts.”

But  Adam Schmidt... when thinking about his good friend Joe Timlin.... says making the avalanche forecasts easier to use, might not have prevented Saturday’s accident.

“In all honestly I don’t think it would have made a huge difference. It is an avalanche zone, that’s why they have signs everywhere all over the sides of the road with that.”

For now, the Colorado Avalanche Information does know this: conditions are still dangerous, including in the Aspen area.