An avalanche in a popular backcountry skiing location on Wolf Creek Pass Thursday, Feb. 16, claimed the life of one backcountry skier and left another injured.
The skier, identified as Andre Hartlies, was reportedly from New Zealand, but was working with the ski patrol at Keystone. He was reported to be in his late 30s, though his age was not confirmed.
Hartlies was skiing with two other men on a steep slope with trees and rock outcroppings in Gibbs Bowl, on the east side of Gibbs Creek and near the Lobo Overlook, when the skiers triggered the avalanche, said Incident Commander Diane Bigley.
A total of 48 emergency personnel from several area agencies were dispatched to the area of the Lobo Overlook on Wolf Creek Pass shortly after noon Thursday, said Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus, incident public information officer.
Bigley said the first call concerning the avalanche came in at about 11:55 a.m., from Hartlies’ fellow skiers.
Hosselkus said the avalanche was triggered by a trio of backcountry skiers, with the first skiing the run safely, the second triggering the avalanche, and the third being trapped in it when the snow collapsed.
Bigley said reports vary as to whether or not the deceased skier was the second or third skier on the run, but a preliminary report released by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center notes that he was the third skier.
Bigley said Hartlies’ fellow skiers quickly found him, within 10 minutes of the avalanche, and began administering CPR.
The cause of death was blunt-force trauma caused by the avalanche, Bigley reported.
According to Bigley, the recovery of the body was difficult due to the steepness of the slope (reported by the CAIC as a 40-degree slope near treeline), requiring three different rope settings to pull Hartlies to the top of the slope.
Hartlies’ body was recovered around 8 p.m. Thursday night, Hosselkus said, with Bigley reporting that emergency personnel cleared the scene at about 8:30 p.m.
According to the preliminary CAIC report found on the entity’s website, the avalanche occurred at about 11,200 feet in elevation and was three feet deep, 600 feet wide, and 600 feet vertically.
The death was the sixth death caused by an avalanche in Colorado during the 2011-12 season.
Those agencies that responded are the Incident Management Group, Upper San Juan Search and Rescue, Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department Office of Emergency Management, EMS, Mineral County Search and Rescue, Rio Grande Search and Rescue, Mineral County coroner, U.S. Forest Service, South Fork EMS, South Fork fire and search and rescue, Wolf Creek Ski Area, and the CAIC.
According to the CAIC, human-triggered avalanches remain likely on steep slopes above treeline due to recent snowfalls and unstable snow layers.
Due to current avalanche danger levels and the popularity of backcountry skiing on and around Wolf Creek Pass, Christina Marquart of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department, Office of Emergency Management offered advice for backcountry skiers and winter enthusiasts to be safe:
• Always carry a beacon, probe and shovel.
• Know how to use equipment before setting out for an adventure.
• Always ski (or snowboard, or the winter activity of choice) with a partner.
• Tell someone other than your ski partner when you can be expected to return.
• Dress in layers.
• Carry an extra set of clothing, food, a first-aid kit and water.
• Carry any required medicine that may be needed in an emergency (medications for allergies, diabetes, etc.).
• Carry a map and a compass, even if familiar with the area since fellow skiers may not be and it is easy to get turned around.
• Check avalanche reports and forecasts before heading out.
• Check weather reports and forecasts before heading out.
Marquart added that safety courses are available for serious winter sport enthusiasts, such as through the Wolf Creek Avalanche School.
“Just don’t underestimate the power, I guess, of Mother Nature,” Marquart said, “And be prepared.”