First Gully, Eureka (near Silverton), San Juan Mountains
November 21, 2004
3 ice-climbers caught, 1 buried and injured, 1 partly buried
Mid-morning, three ice-climbers (all males in their early 20s) on the second pitch of First Gully were hit by an avalanche. The lead climber was knocked off the route, and fell approximately 200 feet to the ground. He was buried under about 6 inches of debris, but able to clear his face by himself. The avalanche hit the other two climbers, partially burying one, and breaking all but their back-up anchor. The party had planned to climb Stairway to Heaven, but changed routes because they felt avalanche danger on Stairway was too high. Poor visibility and unfamiliarity with the area prevented them from seeing the avalanche terrain above First Gully.
Events Prior to the Avalanche
The group left Silverton around 0700, planning to climb Stairway to Heaven near Eureka. The group felt uneasy about avalanche conditions but had not called the CAIC hotline. On the way to Eureka, they saw evidence of natural avalanches on a north aspect, and knew the avalanche danger would be relatively high with the new snow. Because Stairway was exposed with a large and steep avalanche starting zone above the climb, they altered their plans to climb a route they felt would have less avalanche danger. They began climbing First Gully at 0800.
At approximately 1100, the lead climber was about 100 feet up the second pitch. Looking up, he saw the avalanche coming, and then was hit and knocked off the climb. The leader fell about 200 feet. He was buried under 6 inches of snow, but was able to quickly uncover his face. The avalanche hit the belayer and third climber as well. The force of the snow broke all but their backup ice-screw anchor. The avalanche knocked over the belayer and buried him to his waist in a sitting position. The third climber was standing at the belay, and not buried.
About 200 feet of the gully between the base of the climb and the road was filled with debris.
The CAIC issued an avalanche warning for the all of the Southern Mountains, including the San Juans, at 0700 that morning. Between 8 and 16 inches of snow fell overnight on the mountain passes near Silverton. The Silverton highway forecasters measured snowfall rate of 1-inch-an- hour for most of the morning.
The third climber (an Emergency Medical Technician) and belayer rappelled to the leader and uncovered him fully. An assessment indicated the leaders back was broken. The climbers stabilized the leader on a ledge they dug in the avalanche debris, and brought warm clothes from the nearby car. One climber went down to the road and flagged down a car. The group in the car contacted Search and Rescue.
Search and Rescue arrived within an hour. The belayer and third climber were down at the road, talking with the Sheriff, when another avalanche ran. Debris buried the injured leader under about 6 inches of snow again. He was able to uncover his face by himself. The debris filled about 200 feet of the gully, so was probably similar in size to the first avalanche, but the debris was described as softer.
The two climbers participated with Search and Rescue in the evacuation of the lead climber. He was taken to the hospital, apparently with a broken back. [No word on his condition.]
Many ice climbs form low in avalanche paths, and even small avalanches can hit climbers with considerable force. The climbers knew that there would be avalanche danger on their intended route, and altered plans to climb a route they felt would be safer. They did not know, could not see, and were unable to evaluate the terrain and snowpack above the climb they chose. One climber commented that the avalanche hazard evaluation was different than if they had been backcountry skiing, where they could easily evaluate snow conditions. At the base of the climb, there was only the new snow on top of rocks, and no way to assess the snowpack above the route.
The two uninjured climbers have medical and avalanche training. Their medical training helped assess and stabilize the injured climber. They did not move him because of the spinal injury. They were lucky that the second avalanche was no larger than the first, that the injured climber was able to clear his head, and that only one of the party was caught.
It is unknown whether the avalanche was a slab or a loose snow avalanche; most likely it was a loose snow avalanche that released naturally (or spontaneously) in the fresh snow off steep rocks or ice. Loose snow avalanches from steep terrain are common during times of heavy snowfall or high-intensity snowfall. Ice climbs can be especially dangerous during times of higher-intensity snowfalls. (In Colorado this means snowfall rates typically equal to and greater than about 1-inch-per-hour.) Even small loose-snow avalanches can hit with tremendous force in the narrow confines of an iced-gully. (In terms of impact pressure it is the velocity -- because the term is squared -- that is most important rather than the density of the snow.) Ice climbers should be very leery of narrow gullies during times of higher intensities snowfalls.
CAIC Danger Rating
The backcountry avalanche danger was rated at HIGH and an Avalanche Warning was issued at 0700.