A backcountry slide takes a life | VailDaily.com
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A backcountry slide takes a life

Staff Reports

Shortly after Kent Roberg returned from his backcountry trip (see main bar), John William Jensen was killed in an avalanche nearby. The slide, and the devastation left in its wake, was visible from the route to Barnard Hut.While the author’s group was disorganized, scattered and generally under-educated about backcountry terrain, Jensen and his group were quite the opposite: Jensen was participating in an Aspen Expeditions Level II avalanche education course. Despite the experience and preparation of the group (initial investigation by the Aspen Times showed they had dug an avalanche pit before descending the pitch), the slide broke and carried Jensen 3,500 feet down a gully. An autopsy revealed he died of asphyxiation.One of a party of six in the Highlands backcountry Sunday, Jensen was the only skier caught in the slide.Initial reports from the scene on Sunday indicated Jensen had suffered grave injuries during the slide, but Pitkin County Coroner Steven Ayers said there was no significant trauma.”We were all kind of surprised,” Ayers said Monday. “There must have been something about his clothing that made it look like [he had broken his legs], but there was no fracture or anything. And the head trauma was mostly vomit and some facial swelling and bruising and abrasions” – injuries Ayers described as superficial.The avalanche, which was reported by a skier on top of Highland Peak at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, left Jensen at rest in the debris flow on a knoll above the floor of the Conundrum Creek Valley. It’s estimated he was buried for about 20 minutes before his party dug him out.Aspen Expeditions owner and guide Dick Jackson told the Aspen Times Monday evening that he had spent the day investigating the avalanche site.”We’re wanting to do a little bit more research to connect the dots here a little bit more before we make any statements,” Jackson said.An Aspen Expeditions spokeswoman told the Times on Monday: “We understand that efforts are being made to contact family members, and our heartfelt sympathy goes out to them.” Knox Williams, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the backcountry conditions in Aspen on Sunday – moderate danger with pockets of considerable in areas favoring colder aspects – hadn’t changed much in the week preceding the fatal slide.On Sunday evening, Highlands patrol director Mac Smith said the party was one of at least four to exit the ski area boundary during the day. The Highlands ridge is frequented by backcountry skiers as is the Barnard Hut.Although the route to Barnard is relatively avalanche safe, the terrain which surrounds the route, and the hut, can be dangerous. Lost or disoriented, it’s easy to imagine one of the author’s group wandering into an avalanche-prone area.This story was compiled by the Vail Trail from Aspen Times stories by Tim Mutrie and Steve Benson.


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