Three Eagle County locals presumed dead in avalanche near Silverton
Four men were caught in the slide Monday, with three still missing, but not yet recovered from the scene because of hazardous conditions
Editor’s note: The Vail Daily has changed the language in this story from an earlier version from “confirmed dead” to “presumed dead” to reflect a fluid situation on the ground in San Juan County as a search operation continues to recover the three missing skiers caught in Monday’s avalanche.
Family, friends and colleagues spent Monday night and much of Tuesday waiting, praying and hoping for a good outcome after four well-known Eagle County residents were reportedly involved in an avalanche near Silverton on Monday afternoon.
But three of the men still missing after the avalanche were presumed dead later Tuesday evening.
The four men, part of a larger group of backcountry skiers, triggered a large avalanche between the towns of Silverton and Ophir while traveling in an area known locally as “The Nose” around the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek, according to a preliminary report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The avalanche released on a northeast-facing slope, near treeline, at about 11,500 feet. The four men were caught, carried and fully buried by the debris. Members of the group not caught in the slide were able to recover one person with minor injuries.
A search and rescue operation for the three men still missing started Monday evening, continued late into Monday night, and then resumed Tuesday morning after avalanche mitigation.
Some of the missing men were located and presumed to be dead Tuesday, officials said. But they were not successfully extracted from the area because of the time of day and the hazards rescue personnel faced, and they have not yet been positively identified by the local coroner. Recovery efforts were suspended Tuesday, until conditions improve.
“We are hoping for a successful recovery mission (Wednesday),” said DeAnne Gallegos, public information officer for San Juan County, noting that a large storm is also expected to arrive in the area, which could complicate or delay that recovery mission.
The Vail Daily has confirmed the identities of the four skiers but is withholding their names pending formal announcements by authorities.
The search and rescue and recovery operations have included the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department, San Juan County Search and Rescue, Silverton Medical Rescue, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Helitrax helicopter service and La Plata County Search and Rescue.
Gallegos said earlier Tuesday that there had been some confusion regarding who was involved in the avalanche, adding that dangerous avalanche conditions also affected the search and rescue operations.
So far this season, a total of 10 skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers have been caught in avalanches, with eight people buried and four killed.
Fatal incidents include one backcountry skier caught, buried and killed in an avalanche at First Creek north of Berthoud Pass on Dec. 26; two backcountry skiers caught, buried and killed in an avalanche on the North Face of Battleship southeast of Ophir on Dec. 19; and one backcountry skier caught, buried and killed near Ohio Pass in the Anthracite Range on Dec. 18.
Monday’s avalanche on “The Nose” marks one of the largest avalanches in Colorado in recent years in terms of the number of people caught, buried and killed.
In February 2014, five skiers were caught in an avalanche on Star Mountain near Twin Lakes, with three skiers buried and two killed. In April 2013, six skiers were caught in an avalanche at Sheep Creek north of Loveland Pass, with five skiers buried and killed, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Much of Colorado’s mountain country is facing “moderate” and “considerable” avalanche conditions, with an avalanche watch issued Tuesday for the Aspen and Gunnison zones.
Vail Health said it encourages anyone who may need counseling or behavioral health resources to reach out and seek them, noting that Olivia’s Fund can provide no-cost access to services for community members who identify a financial barrier.
Pam Boyd contributed reporting.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.