Temperatures, terrain traps factored into deadly backcountry avalanche on Bald Mountain in Summit County, investigation finds
Summit Daily News
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has released its report on the Bald Mountain avalanche that killed a 31-year-old Littleton man Saturday, April 29.
Benjamin Ryan, 31, died in the slide while skiing solo in a backcountry area near Breckenridge, according to the Summit County Coroner’s Office. Summit County Rescue Group members early the next morning recovered his body from the east side of the mountain, where he was discovered buried about 2 feet under the snow.
“It’s a pretty sad incident,” Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said.
Ryan reportedly left the trailhead around 7 a.m. the day of the avalanche and eventually ascended west up a broad slope above tree line and reached a saddle just north of the main summit of Bald Mountain.
From there, Ryan reportedly traveled along the rocky ridgeline, reached the summit around 10:40 a.m. and continued south to the top of a steep, east-facing slope above several rocky chutes.
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He began his descent around 11:30 a.m. and triggered the avalanche in steep terrain about 300 feet below the summit, according to the report. The avalanche broke about 10 inches deep in dry, wind-drifted snow and quickly picked up speed, according to the avalanche information center, gaining mass as it accumulated wet surface snow lower in the chute.
The avalanche reportedly swept Ryan downhill about 1,700 feet to a point where rescuers from Summit County Rescue Group discovered his body around 11 p.m. that night.
The fatal avalanche at Bald Mountain marks the 11th avalanche death in Colorado this winter season. One of those deaths occurred in late December in Summit County after an adult son died skiing with his father in a backcountry area outside of Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Temperature changes and terrain traps
The days prior to the avalanche had been snowy but often warmer after sunrise, leading to a combination of dry and wet snow conditions, the avalanche center said.
On April 25, 4 inches of snow fell overnight around Breckenridge. Then temperatures climbed above freezing the following day, causing the surface snow to get wet and refreeze overnight, the report explained.
On April 27, another storm system deposited 7 inches of snow in the area, and westerly winds were strong, between 30-40 mph throughout most of the day.
By April 29, the day of the accident, Breckenridge Ski Resort, about 8 miles northwest of the avalanche site, reported clear skies and westerly winds between 25-30 mph, with temperatures in the low 20s around 7 a.m. that later climbed to 35 degrees by 11 a.m.
Winds dropped into the low teens, and intense sunshine warmed the snowpack, especially on easterly slopes, according to the Avalanche Information Center. Temperatures would climb to a high of 40 degrees during the day.
“It was a very warm day, and that melted snow on the south and southeast facing slopes and allowed for more snow to be entrained in the debris flow,” Green said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center described the avalanche as relatively small but said since the avalanche was on a very steep slope, the slide was enough to knock Ryan off his feet and carry him downhill. The avalanche created a pile about 10 feet deep, according to the Avalanche Information Center.
Whereas avalanche debris that flows out into more open terrain will spread out, debris that flows through narrow features can be deeper, even with less volume, Green noted.
“We call these types of features terrain traps because the terrain itself will cause a more dangerous situation than if you were in an area where the debris could spread out,” he said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecast for April 29 rated avalanche danger as moderate, or level 2 of 5, above tree line and low, or level 1 of 5, below tree line.
The forecast highlighted that wind slab avalanches were possible above tree line on northeast through southeast to west-facing aspects. Wet loose avalanches with a likelihood of possible were also highlighted.
Traveling alone and rescuer safety
Green said there is nothing wrong with traveling alone in the backcountry, as Ryan had been, but with no one to help in the case of injury or an avalanche, solo travelers should be cognizant of the increased risk.
“Traveling in the backcountry by yourself is not necessarily wrong,” Greene said. “But it does leave very little room for error.”
Traveling with a partner is always a good idea because difficult situations can be easier to manage with a group, and team members can be there to dig someone caught in an avalanche out, the center noted.
The wet snow meant the debris was dense, the report notes. While there is no way of knowing if the outcome would have been different if Ryan had had a partner, the information center said people’s chances of survival increase if someone is there to help.
“Wet debris is very thick and heavy,” Greene said. “It doesn’t have to be a very big avalanche to make it very hard to dig yourself out of — or impossible.”
With that kind of wet snow, someone buried only 6 inches or 1 foot under the snow probably can’t dig themselves out, he said.
Those traveling in avalanche terrain, especially alone, may want to consider carrying an avalanche airbag with them, Green noted. These specialized backpacks are equipped with a trigger that will inflate the airbag when pulled, decreasing a backcountry traveler’s chances of being completely buried in a slide.
Avalanche airbags can be helpful in the right situation, Green said, but will only do so much to reduce a backcountry user’s risk. Therefore, other factors — including forecasts, conditions and terrain features — remain just as important. The airbags work by making the person caught in an avalanche bigger and therefore less likely to sink into the avalanche, he said.
“Like any safety tool, they’re not a panacea,” Green said. “They are just another tool you can use.”
Another important backcountry tool, an avalanche transceiver, is important to carry if headed out alone, Greene said, since it can help rescuers quickly locate a body buried under the snow.
Summit County Rescue Group learned of an overdue skier around 5:45 p.m. the day of the fatal avalanche after Ryan’s girlfriend reported that he hadn’t returned from Bald Mountain, according to Anna DeBattiste, a spokesperson for the all-volunteer 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.
Around 8:30 p.m., two rescuers from Summit County Rescue Group left County Road 520 and skinned to the site of the avalanche, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report states.
About two hours later, the pair of rescuers arrived at the toe of the debris and began searching, according to the report. Because Ryan had been wearing an avalanche transceiver, rescuers quickly located his body, around 11 p.m. The rescuers dug him out of the snow and transported his body back to the trailhead, not arriving back until 3:30 a.m. the next morning, the report states.
“Carrying a transceiver is always a good idea because if there is someone else in the area, it’s going to be a lot faster to find you,” Greene said. “Hopefully they find you alive. But even if they don’t, it will make things better for the parties you’re leaving behind.”
For rescue crews, a transceiver can mean less time spent in potential avalanche terrain or dangerous conditions. For a grieving family, it can lead to faster recovery of the victim’s body, he said.
“The search and rescue groups do really good work,” Green said. “They’re staffed by volunteers, so really they are doing essential work for all of us when we need them. And they’re doing it because they care.”