How the Colorado Avalanche Information Center investigates fatal slides

Forecasters and snow scientists with the CAIC work with land managers, county sheriffs, and search and rescue groups to compile detailed accounts of every fatal avalanche

Jason Blevins
Colorado Sun
James Sutton and Jurgen Montgomery were skiing in a rarely skied, low elevation zone near Vallecito Reservoir when they were killed in an avalanche.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy

After several weeks of quiet thanks to an unseasonably stable snowpack, three men were killed in two avalanches on Feb. 25. 

The avalanches — each very different from the other — sent forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s team in the southern mountains scrambling. Two went way south, to La Manga Pass west of Antonito, near the New Mexico border. Two went to a low-elevation hill just above Vallecito Reservoir northeast of Durango. 

The two teams had contrasting experiences as they studied the avalanche scenes. All four of the avalanche experts would analyze snowpack, weather patterns and piece together clues to create detailed reports outlining the events that led up to the avalanche. They interviewed survivors and mourning family members to help them craft a narrative as well as an analysis of what went wrong on that Saturday.

The reports are the cornerstones of avalanche safety research and offer insights that other backcountry travelers might be able to use to better inform their navigation through avalanche terrain. The forecasters at the avalanche center have penned six accident reports so far this winter, outlining the snow, weather and decisions of 12 backcountry travelers caught in avalanches that buried nine people, killing seven of them.

Decades of those avalanche reports have identified trends and common missteps that have helped countless backcountry skiers, snowmobilers and hikers recognize hazards in both terrain and decision-making.


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