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Man killed in ski accident

A 29-year-old Steamboat Springs man was killed Thursday in a backcountry skiing accident in Jackson County. He fell while skiing steep terrain and tumbled 50 to 70 feet into a rock field.

Jackson County Coroner George Crocket said James H. Pearson III died of massive head trauma. Pearson worked in the restaurant industry in Steamboat Springs.

The accident took place above Lake Agnes on the west side of Cameron Pass, near Gould. Pearson was with a party of 10 other skiers, some or all of them from Steamboat.

He was wearing a helmet, which was broken in the fall, according to people on the scene.

Members of Routt County Search and Rescue’s “ropes team” led by Russ Sanford were called by Jackson County officials to aid in the recovery.

Jackson County Sheriff Rick Rizor said the group was skiing together after spending the preceding night in rented backcountry huts near Seven Utes Mountain.

Rizor said the accident happened at about 4 p.m. A witness told Rizor he had skied a short distance ahead of Pearson, then stopped above a steeply descending band of rocks. The first skier was looking uphill as Pearson skied down toward him and gestured for Pearson to go to his left or right, but Pearson continued straight beyond him and then tumbled into the rocks.

Pearson was alive when members of his party reached him, Rizor said.

“They administered CPR, but then they lost him,” Rizor said.

Another member of the group skied down a steep chute to summon help, Sanford said. The rest of the party remained with the body, Rizor said.

Sanford said rescuers arrived at the Lake Agnes trailhead thinking they were there to rescue a survivor of a fall. However, Jackson County medical technicians who had been to the accident scene told them the victim had died.

The Steamboat team was called in because Jackson County does not have a ropes team.

“Jackson County has great snowmobile and ground capability,” Routt County Search and Rescue board member Joe Stevens said. “We work really well with them.”

Pearson’s body was found about 700 vertical feet up from the bottom of a 47-degree, east-facing couloir, Sanford said. Rizor said there was a discussion about whether to wait until morning to remove his body. Some of the first emergency personnel on scene started up the chute and felt the snow settle under their feet, causing them to retreat and look for another route.

Sanford told Rizor his crew was prepared to remove the body. The weather was favorable and the moon reflecting off the snow provided ample light. But they needed some help getting to the scene of the accident.

“I made the determination that nobody on my crew was going to go into that chute,” Sanford said.

A pair of Jackson County Search and Rescue snowmobile operators ferried the rope team up the southwest slope at the far end of Lake Agnes, Rizor said. Their route followed the path of a waterfall that cascades into the lake in summer, Rizor said.

“It was a hair-raising snowmobile ride,” Sanford said.

“I’d put those two riders up against anybody,” Rizor emphasized.

Rizor said the wind was gusting and snow conditions were variable — sometimes there was a crust of icy snow that was difficult to kick a toehold in, and in other places it was breakable.

“It took forever, and it was very treacherous for everybody,” Rizor said.

The snowmobiles ferried the rope team to a saddle that was higher in elevation than the spot where the body lay. However, they still faced a half-mile traverse around to the east, Sanford said. He used an ice ax to help cut footholds in the hard snow as the team made its way around the bowl.

The high-point of the traverse was about 11,600 feet, and the victim was at about 11,400 feet elevation, Sanford estimated.

Sanford did not think his team could transport a litter basket carrying the body back along the traverse. Instead, he was planning to knot all four climbing ropes together to lower Pearson straight down the steep couloir that led to a secure spot just above the lake. The only barriers were a pair of rock bands, one about 50 feet below Pearson and another 150 feet farther down.

The rope team still needed to get 10 of the skiers off the mountain, and Sanford decided that even with the relatively bright moonlight, it was unwise for them to attempt to traverse out on skis. So his team hauled the litter basket back up the chute to ferry their skis down.

Meanwhile, Jackson County Search and Rescue members had worked hard to improve the footholds on the traverse. Members led the rest of the skiing party off the mountain on foot.

The Routt County Search and Rescue Team returned to the parking lot at the trailhead by 3 a.m., and made it back to Steamboat at 5:15 a.m. Members included Adam Christman, Karin Satre, Kristia Hill, Dawn Alperti, Chris Marz and Riley Polumbus.

Rizor said in addition to his department and Jackson County Search and Rescue, agencies that aided in the recovery effort included personnel from State Forest State Park, Colorado State Forest, U.S. Forest Service and North Park Ambulance Service.


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