Dangerous avalanche conditions in the San Juan Mountains forced search and rescue crews to suspend the recovery mission Tuesday afternoon for three backcountry skiers who were caught in a slide Monday between Silverton and Ophir.
DeAnne Gallegos, spokeswoman for San Juan County, said unstable snowpack in the region has resulted in natural slides and the need for avalanche mitigation activity, which has caused hazardous conditions for rescue crews.
“The recovery mission of the three missing skiers was suspended until the avalanche conditions are stable and first responders can re-enter the dangerous terrain of the avalanche accident site,” she said.
An incoming winter storm further puts the rescue mission into uncertainty. Snow was expected to start Tuesday night and last until Thursday, a period of time when up to 8 inches of new snow could accumulate in the high country.
A planning meeting was scheduled for later Tuesday night to discuss any possible recovery actions Wednesday, Gallegos said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported a group of backcountry skiers triggered a large avalanche Monday in an area known as “The Nose” near Ophir Pass, at an elevation of about 11,500 feet on a northeast-facing slope.
CAIC Executive Director Ethan Greene said The Nose is regarded as a steep, exposed slope with high risk of avalanches, but that the group, according to an investigation, was off to the side on lower-angle terrain.
“It’s not as aggressive of a line (as The Nose), but it’s still open terrain near tree line,” he said.
Four people were caught, carried and fully buried in the slide, the center reported. The group was able to recover one person caught in the slide who suffered minor injuries.
Three other members of the group remain missing.
Search and rescue crews launched the mission at 5:20 p.m. Monday and worked late into the night, restarting efforts Tuesday morning.
Telluride Helitrax triggered avalanches to help mitigate the danger, but natural avalanches breaking throughout the day signaled to search and rescue crews that the risk of slides remained high.
Because getting to the area where the skiers were caught in the slide involves traversing avalanche terrain, rescue efforts were eventually called off Tuesday afternoon because of the risk posed to emergency crews.
The identities of three skiers are not being released until they are found or recovered, Gallegos said.
The Vail Daily reported the four skiers who were caught in the avalanche were Eagle County residents, after the county manager there made a statement about the incident at a public meeting.
“We’re praying for some Eagle County and town of Eagle folks who aren’t accounted for yet,” said Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll, according to the Vail Daily.
The Vail Daily also reported it confirmed the identities of the three missing skiers, but was choosing to withhold the names as of Tuesday evening.
Greene said there were about seven or eight people in the group total. While that may sound like a large group, he said the number of people is really a judgment call for backcountry skiers.
“Some people like to ski in big groups, other people like to ski in small groups,” he said. “Managing bigger groups has some complications as you’re moving through the mountains. But bigger groups have more resources if you need them.”
Greene declined to discuss details about the incident, saying it’s too soon in the investigation process.
What is clear is the risk of triggering an avalanche in the San Juan Mountains remains high, he said.
“It’s been pretty dangerous,” he said.
Fragile, weak layers within snowpack in the mountains have caused significant instability, leading to a high risk of triggering a slide, Greene said. And that risk increases with the smaller storms the region has been experiencing.
In Colorado, 10 backcountry users, such as skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers, have been caught in avalanches this winter, according to the CAIC. A total of eight people were buried and four people died.
Two of those deaths occurred not far from Monday’s slide near Ophir Pass.
Two Durango backcountry skiers on Dec. 19 were caught in an avalanche on a run known as Battleship, just south of Ophir Pass. Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, 53, and Albert Perry, 55, known to friends as “Bert,” died in the slide.
The CAIC lists the San Juan Mountains in the Level 3 “considerable” avalanche danger category.
“Do not underestimate the danger,” the CAIC said.
The public is asked to avoid the Ophir Pass area.