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Avalanche center report sheds light on fatal avalanche near Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart / Aspen Times fileMountain Rescue Aspen members retrieve Adam Dennis' body on April 5, after he was killed in an avalanche near Aspen on April 4. The slide run-out is visible above the team.
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ASPEN – An Aspen man’s passion for photography might have placed him in a position where he was susceptible to a fatal avalanche near Aspen Highlands on April 4, according to an accident report prepared by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Adam Dennis got “very close” to the skier in front of him during a traverse to try to shoot some video of the person, the CAIC report said. The skier in front of him, identified as “skier number 4,” triggered the avalanche. Dennis, the fifth in the single-file line of skiers, got buried by the snow slide and was killed.

“One contributing factor to this accident was the lack of distance between the 4th and 5th skiers during their traverse,” the report said.

The report was filed Sunday by Brian McCall, a forecaster for CAIC, who visited the avalanche site April 5 while Mountain Rescue Aspen recovered the body. McCall also interviewed survivors.

CAIC assesses avalanche risk for the public throughout the winter, and it writes reports on fatal accidents and close calls. The reports recite the weather conditions before and during accidents, snowpack conditions, events leading to the avalanche and an accident summary. CAIC doesn’t judge the victims’ actions.

McCall’s report said Dennis and the other four skiers in his group met early on the morning of April 4, rode chairlifts to the top of Aspen Highlands ski area, then hiked out on the ridge also used to access Highland Bowl. The group skied a line known as Green Trees in Maroon Bowl, on the west side of Highlands Ridge. After the first lap, they rode back up the chairlifts at Highlands for another run outside the ski area that afternoon. At about 1:15 p.m. they went into an area known as Desolation Row, one bowl south of Maroon Bowl. Desolation Row provides about 4,000 vertical feet of skiing from the Highlands Peak ridge line to the Maroon Creek Valley floor.

“They spaced out and skied one at a time for several short pitches down this initial section,” the CAIC report said. “As the group reached treeline elevations, they made a traverse to the skiers [sic] left side of the bowl into northwest facing terrain. On this traverse, the group again moved one at a time.

“The fourth skier moved quickly across this traverse and near the end of it, triggered a slab avalanche from a shallow spot in the snowpack,” the report continued.

The crown face of the avalanche was only 6 to 8 inches deep, McCall wrote, but it ran across the slope and became much deeper.

“Skier number 5 [Dennis], towards the end of this traverse, got very close to the 4th skier in an effort to shoot some video with a camera he carried,” the report said. “He was caught in and killed by the avalanche that was triggered just in front of him.”

The close proximity of Dennis and the skier in front of him was the only contributing factor listed in the report.

Dennis, 38, was the sixth person killed in an avalanche in Colorado this winter and the second in the Aspen-Snowmass Village area. He was an avid outdoorsman as well as a professional photographer. He worked in the hospitality industry and had his own photography business. He specialized in outdoor adventure and sports shots.

The CAIC report, which is on the organization’s website, said the four skiers with Dennis “performed a rapid and efficient search for their buried partner.” They descended the steep terrain within about 15 to 20 minutes, then used their avalanche beacons to locate Dennis and started performing CPR within an additional six minutes. They decided they couldn’t revive Dennis after performing CPR for about 45 minutes.

Avalanche conditions were too dangerous for Mountain Rescue to send in a team the afternoon of April 4. Dennis’ body was recovered early the next morning by a Mountain Rescue ground team.


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