1 man dead, 1 man survives avalanche in Flat Tops Wilderness
Yampa — A Routt County man was buried and killed Tuesday in an avalanche in the Flat Tops Wilderness.
The avalanche occurred in Garfield County, and the coroner there was meeting with the man’s family Tuesday night. His name has not been released.
It was the first avalanche fatality this winter in Colorado.
The man was riding a Timbersled, which is a snow bike converted from a dirt bike.
He was riding with 41-year-old Sean Tyler Searle, who is from Franktown, a suburb southeast of Denver.
After being rescued by Routt County Search and Rescue, Searle was flown by helicopter to a staging area. He collapsed to his knees after being reunited with his wife, Staci, and was then taken to an ambulance.
Routt County Undersheriff Ray Birch said authorities were notified shortly before noon that there was some sort of emergency.
With spotty cellphone reception, Searle was able to send his wife a text message with some information. Search and Rescue went out on snowmobile to search the area around Sheriff Reservoir. Routt County led the rescue, because they were able to respond the fastest.
A Steamboat Springs-based Classic Air Medical helicopter searched from the air, but it was difficult.
“One of the problems was there have been a number of slides over the last couple of days, and they were seeing fresh slides all over the place,” Birch said.
After several hours of searching, rescuers found the deceased man in a slide area. Birch was next to the man’s wife when the radio traffic came in. Yelling and screaming could be heard from about 100 yards away.
“It was very emotional,” Birch said.
At that point, Search and Rescue still did not know if Searle was alive.
Rescuers located boot prints leading up from the body. They followed them and found the word “help” carved into the snow with an arrow pointed in a certain direction.
At about 4:15 p.m., Searle was located.
The helicopter tipped its blades to let Searle know they saw him.
“Then the guy basically collapsed,” Birch said.
Rescuers learned that Searle had also been in the slide, but he was able to free himself and locate the missing man.
Searle dug out the man and performed CPR, but it was too late.
Authorities plan to retrieve the man’s body Wednesday morning.
“It’s dangerous during the day,” Birch said. “We’re not going in at night.”
After word of the incident spread, friends and family members arrived at the staging area.
Steamboat resident Daniel Jessen came with his sled to try to search for the lost men, but he was told to let Search and Rescue handle the operation.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center lists the avalanche danger in the Flat Tops area as “moderate” with heightened avalanche conditions on certain terrain.
Jessen was well aware of the avalanche danger, because he had witnessed six slides Thursday. He did not want to go out Tuesday with friends.
“They asked me if I wanted to go, and I said ‘no,’” Jessen said.
Birch praised the Search and Rescue volunteers for their work.
“They’re remarkable,” Birch said.
He also acknowledged Classic Air Medical.
“They were all in,” Birch said. “Thank God we had a clear day.”
This was the third accident involving avalanches in the Routt National Forest.
A snowmobile triggered an avalanche on Rabbit Ears Pass on Dec. 11. Three riders were buried, but everyone had avalanche safety equipment and survived.
On Jan. 12, an avalanche in the Fish Creek drainage injured a Routt County Search and Rescue member who was on his way to rescue two lost skiers.
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The National Weather Service in Grand Junction has issued a winter storm warning for much of the West Slope ahead of a major weather system expected in the area starting Thursday.