Maroon Bowl skiers in avalanche were experienced, and did a snowpack analysis the previous day
The trio of skiers involved in an avalanche in Maroon Bowl on March 19 that resulted in one death were experienced backcountry skiers who had skied in Maroon Bowl the previous day, according to the accident report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The three, who were vacationing in Aspen, had skied in the backcountry regularly for the past 15 years. They had taken avalanche courses in Europe and followed avalanche conditions in Colorado by reading CAIC forecasts in the weeks before their trip, the report says. Each of them carried avalanche rescue equipment and practiced regularly with the gear.
Gábor Házas, 54, of Budapest, Hungary, was killed in the slide.
“They made an attempt to do snowpack analysis,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the CAIC and Central Mountains lead forecaster. But that was the previous day, Saturday, March 18, when they skied the bowl safely.
On March 18, the group spent the morning skiing inbounds at Aspen Highlands. In the afternoon, they exited the Highlands ski area boundary through a backcountry access point above an area locally called Green Wood Glades. There, they dug a profile through the upper few feet of the snowpack and found no concerning weak layers. Then they climbed N5, a steep, north-facing slope, and descended N5 to Maroon Creek without incident.
Similarly, the next day, Sunday, March 19, the skiers spent the morning inbounds at Highlands before deciding to venture back into Maroon Bowl after lunch. The three discussed the conditions from the previous day and decided cold temperatures and no new snow would not have changed the stable conditions overnight.
“As indicated in the report, their attempt failed to account for the deeper weak layers,” said Lazar. “Had they been closely following the avalanche forecasts, they would have known that the weak layer of concern in that area was these deeply buried, weak layers.”
The report states Skier 2, Házas, wanted to ski one descent down to the road, so the group planned to hike past the previous day’s first descent and make a slightly longer run to Maroon Creek.
At 12:15 p.m., they began their hike up N7. They skied down a short distance before regrouping above a rock band. Skier 1 descended through the rock band and stopped to the skier’s left to watch Skier 2 and 3 descend. Skier 3 waited above the rocks.
Skier 2 fell forward and began sliding as he skied through the rock band. He released a small amount of surface snow and deployed his avalanche airbag. As he slid below the rock band, a large avalanche broke to the ground. The fracture line came within a few feet of Skiers 1 and 3.
The avalanche occurred in Maroon Bowl on a near treeline, northwest-facing slope on Highland Peak in an area next to but outside the Highlands Ski Area boundary. It was small relative to the path and produced enough destructive force to bury and destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a wood frame house or break a few trees, according to the report.
“The previous day’s experience boosted their confidence about snowpack stability on N7. They failed to account for the higher chance of triggering avalanches from thinner snowpack areas such as previously avalanched terrain or slopes with exposed rocks,” the report states.
Skier 1 conducted the companion rescue while Skier 3 climbed back up to the ridge to get help from Highlands ski patrol, who had seen the avalanche from patrol headquarters and responded immediately. Ski patrol dropped a rope to Skier 3 and determined it was too dangerous for patrollers to descend Maroon Bowl.
Meanwhile, Skier 1 was able to detect a transceiver signal after only a few minutes of searching. Skier 2 was partially buried and Skier 1 was able to reach him five minutes after the avalanche was released and began CPR.
A helicopter from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control arrived at 4:36 p.m. with two Mountain Rescue Aspen rescuers. They loaded skiers 1 and 2 onto the helicopter at 4:42 p.m, and the two rescuers skied down to Maroon Creek Road.
Early season storms played a part in forming the weak layer across the Elk Mountains. The estimated one to three feet of snow from late October and early November was followed with a two week dry spell with sunny days and cold temperatures.
By mid-November, the early season snow melted from most slopes, except shady, high-elevation slopes facing northwest, north and northeast. That snow developed into a thick layer of faceted grains on the shady slopes, becoming the primary weak layer across the eastern Elk Mountains.
Highlands reported near continuous snowfall from late November through March 5. After a six-day dry spell, which was the longest dry spell since November, a series of atmospheric river events returned intense snowfall to the mountains. Highlands reported 31 inches of dense snow between March 10 and 19.
On March 11, Highlands snow safety teams were conducting avalanche mitigation in Highlands Bowl, which is inbounds terrain on the opposite side of the ridgeline from Maroon Bowl. Their work also started a large avalanche out of bounds in the proximity of the later slide triggered by the skiers on March 19 in Maroon Bowl.
“It was so close that what they skied into is what we call hangfire, those unsupported slopes that rest above the old fracture line,” said Lazar. “Those slopes are a little bit easier to get moving because they’re unsupported.”
Hangfire are pieces of snow that are hanging precariously in place after an avalanche, he added.
On the day of the March 19 avalanche, the CAIC forecast for the area rated the avalanche danger at moderate, or level 2 of 5.
“The chances of triggering an avalanche under moderate danger is much lower than at high dangers, but the consequences are very much the same. In Maroon Bowl on the day of the avalanche, there were many places you could have skied without triggering an accident, just like the group did the day before the accident,” said Lazar.
According to CAIC avalanche statistics, the last fatal avalanche in Aspen was in 2018. The avalanche caught two side country riders in Maroon Bowl and killed one. The approach and terrain of the March 19 avalanche was similar to this fatal avalanche in 2018.
It may be the end of March, but the spring transition period is only just beginning. As the transition gets closer, Lazar said, water is introduced to the snowpack for the first time and impacts buried weak layers.
“We often see avalanches break on those weak layers,” he said. “We have a transition period before we get into more mature spring snowpack and more predictable melt-freeze cycles.”
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