Colorado avalanche survivor unable to save son, friend
Rocky Mountain News
The 200-foot-wide wall of snow engulfed the three men within seconds.
Chuck Goetz clawed his way out of the snowbank, but his 19-year- old son Mark and his good friend Brian Kopp, a firefighter, were nowhere in sight.
Snow was falling and the temperature was about 10 degrees as Goetz, 59, of Arvada, called for help from 11,200 feet on Gravel Mountain in Grand County.
The group had been backcountry snowmobiling in a popular recreation area northwest of Granby. They were 5 to 10 miles away from the trailhead when the avalanche hit.
An hour passed.
When rescuers got to the scene, Goetz and others had dug Kopp out and were performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on him.
Rescuers soon located Mark Goetz with a probe. They dug out 3 to 4 feet of snow and found the young man facedown. By that time, he had been buried for almost two hours.
Medical technicians performed CPR on the teen while transporting him on a specially equipped toboggan to the trailhead. Both men were pronounced dead on the mountain.
The two deaths marked the low point of a weekend of avalanches in the high country, caused by a combination of Mother Nature and human error.
Conditions ripe for slides
A natural avalanche closed U.S. 6 over Loveland Pass on Saturday afternoon.
Officials say conditions are ripe for avalanches because of a weak snow base and a recent onslaught of heavy snow from storm systems that have hammered the Western Slope and high country.
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the death toll could have been higher.
The avalanche that killed Kopp and Goetz was relatively small, he said. Another avalanche Saturday morning in the Vail Pass area was about three times bigger but caused no injuries.
Both slides were triggered by snowmobilers who were high- marking. High-marking is when a snowmobiler drives up a steep slope and makes a sharp turn to come back down. The practice is known to cause avalanches.
Greene said the snowmobiler on Vail Pass was high-marking. Chuck Goetz told police that his son and Kopp had been high- marking, Grand County Sheriff Rod Johnson said.
Kopp and Mark Goetz were the third and fourth Coloradans to die in avalanches this season, according to the avalanche center. The agency said five or six people die in Colorado avalanches each year.
“The chances are that we will see more people die in the next couple weeks,” Greene predicted.
Snowmobilers not novices
The group caught in the avalanche on Gravel Mountain apparently were not novices to the backcountry.
Kopp, 38, of Larkspur, was an expert snowmobile operator, fellow firefighter Mike Porter said.
“He was very well-versed in snow conditions,” Porter said. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around this because I know he knew it was dangerous up there.”
Chuck Goetz brought his son Mark and son-in-law Harry Than on the Saturday trip, Johnson said.
They drove away from the trailhead at about 10:30 a.m. Just before the avalanche, Than got stuck, and Chuck Goetz told him to stay put until he went ahead and found the other two.
Chuck Goetz found his son and Kopp stuck on the slope, so he drove up above them and was driving down to help them when the avalanche hit, Johnson said.
Another snowmobiler helped Than, 32, of Thornton, out of the snow, and Than did not see the avalanche, Johnson said.
That area and much of the high country had been a midlevel avalanche danger, Greene said. He said most avalanche deaths happen at that danger level.
Greg Foley, field director of Grand County Search and Rescue, said the area where Kopp and Mark Goetz died was known to be dangerous.
“It’s a known avalanche slope that slides every year,” Foley said.
Foley was one of the first rescuers on the scene. He said the deaths could have been prevented if the snowmobilers had been wearing avalanche beacons and if they had not been operating so close together.
“If they would have all had avalanche beacons on, the people that did not get buried could have found them within five minutes,” Foley said.
He stressed the need to have proper safety gear and to avoid highly dangerous slopes.
Without beacons and probes, “By the time a search-and-rescue team gets there . . . it’s too late.”
kimm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2361 Staff writer Jerd Smith contributed to this report.