Backcountry skier killed in Bald Mountain avalanche identified as Littleton resident
The slide — which resulted in the 11th avalanche fatality this season — started in dry, wind-drifted snow and picked up wet snow as it ran down the slope
The Summit County Coroner’s Office has identified the man killed in an avalanche on Bald Mountain on Saturday, April 29, as a resident of Littleton.
Benjamin Ryan, 31, died in the slide while skiing solo in a backcountry area near Breckenridge, according to Coroner Amber Flenniken. Summit County Rescue Group helped recover his body from the east side of the mountain in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Around 5:45 p.m. Saturday, the all-volunteer rescue group received a report that the skier was missing, spokesperson Anne DeBattiste said in a phone interview. His girlfriend — who called 911 to report him missing — said Ryan had left that morning to ski a northeast facing couloir on Bald Mountain, known locally as “Baldy,” and was not returning phone calls by the time he was expected to be back at his car, according to a news release from the rescue group.
By evening, a Flight for Life helicopter and a drone flown by the Summit County Sheriff’s Office had both discovered the avalanche, DeBattiste said, but impending darkness meant the helicopter was no longer able to assist. No tracks were visible in or out of the debris but could have been covered up by windy conditions in the area, according to the news release.
Still unsure whether or not Ryan would be located in the debris — and with the potential for avalanche danger in the area — the rescue group had to decide whether to send rescuers out that night or wait until morning to deploy an avalanche dog team, DeBattiste said.
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After determining that colder temperatures overnight should firm up the snow and reduce the risk of avalanches to rescuers, Summit County Rescue Group opted to send five members on skis into the field that night, she said.
Ryan’s girlfriend indicated he was probably carrying an avalanche transceiver, since she couldn’t find it at home, and rescuers discovered his body via transceiver signal within minutes of arriving on scene around 11 p.m., DeBattiste said. He was buried a little less than 2 feet under the debris, according to the rescue group.
A pair of Summit County Sheriff’s Office special operations members conducted an initial accident investigation at the scene and helped evacuate the body by toboggan, the release states. Rescuers returned from the field around 4 a.m.
In a preliminary report, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the avalanche was “small but long-running” and started at about 13,200 feet. The Information Center’s director, Ethan Greene, was on scene Sunday to conduct an avalanche investigation and said a full report will be issued in the coming days.
“It’s not a huge avalanche,” Greene said. “But certainly big enough to bury or kill someone.”
The avalanche began in dry, wind-drifted snow and entrained wet snow as it ran down the slope, Greene said, noting that the slide encompassed a combination of conditions backcountry skiers can encounter as winter conditions turn toward spring.
“It is not that uncommon for us to see this mix of conditions especially as we’re transitioning from more of a cold, dry winter snowpack to a spring snowpack,” Green said. “When that transition happens from year to year is different.”
For that reason, backcountry users should carefully observe forecasts and conditions, rather than rely on what conditions were like in years past, Greene said. This year, conditions began to transition to spring, causing water to flow through the snowpack. Then it got cold again, and Colorado was buffeted by snowstorms, he said, noting that fresh, dry snow on top of hard, frozen snow can easily cause an avalanche.
Greene also noted that avalanche conditions can be affected by elevation, meaning that backcountry users could be dealing with dry snow conditions near 13,000 feet of elevation and wet snow conditions just several hundred feet below.
Amid the freeze-thaw cycles typical of this time of year, it is best for backcountry users to start their day early while the snow is still hard from the overnight freeze, Greene said, and plan to be at the bottom of the mountain by the time conditions warm up, usually around noon or earlier.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center always advises backcountry users carry an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, and travel with a partner who is carrying the same gear and is trained to use it.
Also Saturday, a backcountry snowboarder was caught in a small wet slide at Quandary Peak, according to a field report the boarder filed with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The boarder said he triggered the slide in the Quandary Couloir around 11:30 a.m.
The fatality at Bald Mountain marks the 11th avalanche death in Colorado this ski season, which saw a deadly early winter as both natural and human-caused slides reached record levels. Also in Summit County this season, 22-year-old Nicholas Feinstein died in an avalanche while skiing with his father in the backcountry of Peak 10 near Breckenridge.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 20 people have been caught and 16 have been buried by avalanches this season.
“There is lots of snow out there still, so there is some really good recreation for people to be doing,” Greene said. “But like any time of the year, there are dangers, so people need to be prepared. Anytime we have snow on the ground, you should be thinking about avalanche conditions.”