CAIC report: Victim yelled ‘we’re going for a ride’ as fatal Maroon Bowl avalanche broke
The Aspen Times
John Galvin realized he was in trouble shortly before he and another skier triggered a fatal avalanche in Maroon Bowl on April 8 that killed Galvin.
“We’re going for a ride!” Galvin told his ski partner, according to a final accident report that was issued Sunday by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The slide swept Galvin, 57, into a tree and he died from his injuries. The other skier received minor injuries and was able to ski out.
The CAIC report said Galvin and his partner altered their plan while ascending Maroon Bowl and increased their exposure to hazard.
Galvin, a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen, and his skiing partner, identified in the report as a former MRA member, planned to skin up the west side of Maroon Bowl to a rock outcrop under a ridge that splits the track of two runs, known as N5 and N6, according a report filed by CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar and Aspen zone forecaster Blase Reardon.
The two skiers planned to descend the lower slopes of N5, exit the bottom of the bowl and ski to Maroon Creek Road. The report, which includes a video explaining the events, was based on field information and interviews with the skier who survived.
However, when they reached the rock outcrop where they intended to stop, Galvin “suggested they continue 200 vertical feet farther uphill to a small stand of mature trees,” the report said. “Skier 1 (Galvin’s skiing partner) later reported feeling ‘a weak layer’ under the new snow as they climbed higher that he had not noticed lower.
“Their concerns about being on the slope grew,” the report continued. “The pair did not want to transition to the downhill travel mode in the middle of the slope, so they discussed their options, including continuing to the trees or crossing climber’s right to a prominent rock. Skier 1 was in the lead and continued climbing, so that they could glide gently downhill across the slope to this rock.”
At about 2:22 p.m. the two skiers felt a collapse within the snow base, according to the report, which refers to Galvin as Skier 2.
“Skier 2 yelled, ‘We’re going for a ride!’” the report said. “Skier 1 looked up and saw the avalanche breaking between him and the stand of trees. The slide swept both skiers down the slope on the skier’s left side of the rock outcrop and into sparse trees.
“Skier 2 stopped at a large tree shortly below the outcrop,” the report continued. “Skier 1 continued about 200 feet farther down slope, coming to a rest on the snow surface with both skis still attached to his boots.”
Members of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol witnessed the accident from the Loge Peak Station. They immediately called 911 and determined it was too dangerous to respond to the accident scene “because of the unusual conditions,” which included warm temperatures, wind and heavy, wet snow, according to the report. There was snow that hadn’t slid above the route to the accident site and above the site itself, the report noted.
The surviving skier turned on his beacon and initially started searching uphill, but he reversed direction after finding Galvin’s ski poles and a ski, which lead him to believe Galvin was carried downhill. Highlands patrollers saw Galvin on the snow surface upslope from a tree. They were able to make voice contract with the searching skier and guide him uphill to an island of trees.
“He spotted Skier 2 and put away his beacon. Skier 1 reached Skier 2’s position by 3:10 p.m.,” the report said. The front side of Galvin’s torso was against a tree and there (were) no obvious sign of life, according to the CAIC, and the surviving skier attempted CPR to no avail.
Avalanche conditions were deemed too dangerous to attempt retrieval for 48 hours. Galvin’s body was recovered by a Mountain Rescue Aspen team Tuesday with the help of a helicopter from the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site.
The report said the state-backed Colorado Avalanche Information Center had issued an avalanche warning for the Aspen backcountry zone for April 8. It warned of “unusually destructive” slides because of the heavy, wet snow.
“Skiers 1 and 2 did not discuss the forecast or warning; Skier 1 had not read it and it is unknown whether Skier 2 saw it,” the report said. “They were aware of and discussed the unusually warm and wet storm. Then (they) decided to enter complex avalanche terrain as the storm was ending.”
Lazar and Reardon wrote that the skiers planned to start their trip into Maroon Bowl early in the day but portions of the Aspen Highlands ski area were closed while the patrol completed avalanche mitigation. The patrol decided not to open Highland Bowl for closing day because the conditions were so severe. Galvin and his ski partner rode in bounds waiting for the Temerity terrain to open. They saw a large avalanche to skier’s left of a run known as Green Trees in Maroon Bowl. It had been triggered by smaller avalanches higher on the slope that were, in turn, triggered by ski patrol explosives, the report said.
“Being very familiar with this terrain, they had seen avalanches on this particular slope many times in the past, and did not think this avalanche was pertinent to their trip plan for the day, which included avoiding this specific terrain feature,” the CAIC report said.
Once Temerity opened, the skiers exited a backcountry gate and descended Green Trees without incident. They crossed avalanche debris from the triggered slide and continued downhill to a bench where they put on climbing skins. They started the ascent to the rock outcrop, which was initially their planned destination.
“They traveled without incident until they made an impromptu decision to continue up a slope steeper than 35 degrees with a terrain trap (trees) below them,” the report said. “As they climbed, they noted that conditions on that slope were different than on the slopes below, though by that point they had few options for escaping the danger.”
Lazar and Reardon wrote in the report that the incident provides general insights that might help other backcountry travelers avoid similar accidents.
“Terrain familiarity can make it difficult to recognize when conditions are different from those previously experienced,” the report said. “Fresh avalanches on adjacent slopes are clear signs of instability. A perception of scarcity — closing day at the ski area and fresh snow — can make it harder to step back from danger. Deviating from a plan in the field often leads to increased exposure to the hazard.”
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