‘This is a really tragic accident:’ Avalanche center report details events leading up to the Dec. 31 fatal avalanche on Peak 10 near Breckenridge
Experts say second avalanche triggered in the Numbers during the rescue shows how dangerous that area was on New Year's Eve
Summit Daily News
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has released a final report on the avalanche that killed a 22-year-old who had been skiing in the backcountry of Peak 10 in Breckenridge on Dec. 31 with his father.
Nick Feinstein, the son of University of Northern Colorado president Andy Feinstein, died in the avalanche, according to a statement from the school. The two had been skiing a backcountry area known locally as the Numbers, a formation of five avalanche paths named in ascending order from west to east along the ridge.
“This is a really tragic accident,” Ethan Greene, the director of the Avalanche Information Center, said. “I think preventable, with some education and understanding of being inside the ski area versus outside the ski area.”
After a handful of runs at Breckenridge Ski Resort, the father and son around 12:30 p.m. hiked a short distance from the top of the Falcon SuperChair to a backcountry access point southwest of the chairlift, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center stated in the Jan. 9 report.
A few other people left the boundary at the same time but traveled uphill to the east to an area known as the Ballroom, while the father and son walked about 200 feet before skiing to the top of an open slope known as Number 5, the report says. It was their first time in the area.
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The son descended the chute and stopped near a tree about three-quarters of the way down to watch his father descend, according to the Avalanche Information Center.
After about 10 turns, the father near the middle of the slope triggered the avalanche, which broke well above him, the report states. He described skiing through the slide, which eventually overtook him, as “like I was riding on a violent wave, and it was hard to stay upright,” according to the Avalanche Information Center.
The avalanche broke 1 to 3 feet deep and about 150 feet wide. It ran about 200 vertical feet. When it stopped, the father’s body and face were under the snow, but he could wiggle his hands above his head, where he could see light, and managed to dig himself out of the debris, the report states. He estimated this took him 20 minutes.
After emerging from the avalanche, the father could not find any sign of his son and heard no response when he yelled for him. He tried to call 911 but had no signal, according to the Avalanche Information Center. Deciding he needed to return to the ski area for help, the father traversed through the trees while shouting as he broke a trail through the snow, as there were no other tracks.
Two brothers skiing an inbound run called Flapjack heard the father’s shouts and one waited while the other skied to an emergency phone and called ski patrol at 1:45 p.m., the report states.
At 2 p.m., Breckenridge Ski Patrol confirmed there was an out-of-bounds avalanche and notified the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, who initiated a search and rescue response, according to the Avalanche Information Center. About five minutes later, a team of three ski patrol rescuers left the ski areas to determine the location of the slide and find safe access to it.
Another team of three rescuers arrived at the scene first and searched the avalanche area for a transceiver signal and visible clues but found nothing, according to the report. The six rescuers then started a probe line and systematically searched the debris field.
When additional rescuers arrived at the scene, they remotely triggered a large avalanche that ran the full length of the Number 4 path, but no one was caught in the slide, the report states.
This unintentional slide at Number 4 was caused when rescuers’ movements in low-angle terrain produced a crack that then triggered the avalanche along a steeper area, according to Greene, the director of the Avalanche Information Center. This second avalanche shows “how easy it was to trigger avalanches in that area at that time,” he said.
Around 2:30 p.m., an avalanche rescue dog team arrived and began to search. About 10 minutes later, rescuers began searching with a RECCO detector, which detected a signal, according to the report. A RECCO detector is a tool used by professional rescuers that emits a directional signal, which then reflects off a reflector sewn into outdoor equipment and clothing or sometimes off other electronic devices.
The rescue team probed the area where the RECCO detector got a signal and got a strike at 3:11 p.m., according to the Avalanche Information Center. Rescuers discovered the son buried about 3.5 feet deep on the uphill side of a small tree. He was face up with his head downhill and displayed no signs of life, the report states. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and his body was transported back to the ski area. The rescue was completed around 3:45 p.m.
Avalanche paths like The Numbers are formed through a complex interaction of geomorphological processes, according to Greene. Avalanches, mudslides and water runoff can dig out avalanche paths like these, creating an open area along a slope, he said.
Backcountry skiers should keep in mind that avalanches can happen anytime there is snow on a slope over about 30 degrees, Greene said, noting that just three days after the slide at Number 5, a splitboarder on Jan. 3 triggered an avalanche at Number 1. Someone was caught in that slide but managed to get out and no rescue response was required, he said.
“It is definitely a place to take seriously as far as avalanche terrain and conditions go,” Greene said.
With areas like The Numbers, it is important for skiers to recognize that avalanche conditions outside of a ski area are very different than within the ski area, Greene said. Ski areas spend a lot of time preparing inbound slopes — including marking obstacles, grooming runs and monitoring and reducing avalanche hazards — but none of this takes place past backcountry access points.
“Once you cross outside of the ski area, you’re in the backcountry,” Greene said. “It doesn’t matter that you’re close to the ski area. You need to be prepared for the avalanche conditions you’re going to see.”
Since the winter of 2009-2010, almost 16 percent of fatal avalanche accidents in Colorado occurred when people left a ski area to recreate in the backcountry, according to the Avalanche Information Center.
Each person heading out into the backcountry should carry an avalanche rescue transceiver, probe pole and a shovel, Green said, adding that everyone in the group should also know how to use their gear. He reminded those heading out into the backcountry to always check the avalanche forecast before leaving.
The report also notes that it is best practice to expose just one person at a time to any avalanche hazard — so that if one person becomes buried, the other is free to dig them out.
The most common way to do this is to travel one at a time through avalanche paths or sections of avalanche terrain, the report states. In the Dec. 31 accident, however, both the son and father were on the slope simultaneously, according to the Avalanche Information Center.
Avalanche conditions remain dangerous
The Dec. 31 avalanche at Number 5 was a soft slab avalanche — one of the most dangerous kinds of avalanches. Across Colorado, including in Summit County, avalanche risk has remained high with a record-level number of early-season reports.
Throughout the winter season, each weather event forms a layer of snow which can be read a bit like the rings of a tree, according to Greene. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center tracks these layers as they form and how they change over time and depending on different terrain and conditions.
The snowpack tends to break along the interface of these layers, Greene said, especially when harder snow forms on top of weaker layers. Near Breckenridge, snowfall from mid-November storms created a faceted layer of larger crystals sometimes called “sugar snow.” This snow is too weak to even form a snowball, Greene said.
“You’ll have this harder layer of snow on top of this weak, very granular snow at the base,” Greene said. “And that’s really the setup that creates avalanches if you’re up higher in the mountains.”
By the end of December, almost 2 feet of snow had piled up on this weaker layer of snow, creating the conditions that led to the avalanche, he said.
While conditions in the past few days have generally resulted in a slow downward trend in avalanche danger, Greene said that is not likely to continue as more snow is expected later this week.
“The potential to trigger deadly avalanches is a very real thing,” he said. “We do have another storm coming later in the week, so avalanche conditions are not going to change dramatically.”