Student dies in Colorado avalanche-safety course, San Juan avy danger remains elevated

An avalanche on the afternoon of Saturday, January 5 in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains took the life of Peter Marshall of Longmont, Colo. Marshall, age 40, was among six individuals involved with an avalanche safety course who were caught in the slide. The other five survived. Avalanche danger leading up to and following this fatality has remained elevated for the San Juan Mountains.

The January 5 Upper Senator Beck Basin avalanche. San Juan Mountains, Colo. [Photo] Courtesy Colorado Avalanche Information Center

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s full report, the avalanche occurred on a south face near 13,000 feet in Upper Senator Beck Basin, an area northwest of Red Mountain Pass, the stretch of U.S. Highway 550 between the towns of Silverton and Ouray. The avalanche caught all six members of the party before a second slide, a sympathetic release, ran over the first debris pile, burying one individual beneath 2.5 meters of snow, The CAIC states in its January 16 full report.

Marshall’s death, which occurred during a course offered by Silverton Avalanche School (SAS), represents the first in the school’s 56-year history, according to the Colorado Sun and SAS director Jim Donovan. The party was practicing in the field during the second day of a three-day Level 2 recreational course, which was based of out St. Paul Lodge & Hut, located between the town of Silverton and Red Mountain Pass.

“This tragic accident impacts all of us and our deepest condolences go out to the family,” SAS wrote in a press release on its website. “Our number one priority at this time is ensuring the safety and well being of the family of the victim and the students and staff involved in the accident.” According to SAS, Peter Marshall was a safe and diligent skier and a father and husband.

This accident represents this season’s third avalanche fatality in North America and the first involving a skier. (Since January 5, a snowmobiler perished in a Wyoming avalanche near Togwotee Pass, according to a CAIC report, marking four fatalities during the 2018-19 season). Additionally, the CAIC reports, three days prior to the fatal Red Mountain Pass avalanche, three snowshoers became caught in a slide near Trico Peak, west of the pass on a southeast aspect near 12,300 feet. All were uninjured.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasted avalanche danger for Saturday, January 5 in the Northern San Juan Mountains as Moderate at all elevations with Persistent Slab avalanches as the only avalanche problem. A following weather event that brought significant storm and drifting snow caused danger to rise to Considerable at all aspects and elevations. The storm, which peaked January 7, buried a weak foundation of near-surface facets, large facets mid-pack and large depth hoar near the ground.

The Summary statement in the forecast for January 5 read as such:

Snow safety team triggered large avalanche breaking to the ground yesterday, and forecasters reported worrisome snowpack test results along the US 550 corridor.  This provides clear evidence that you can trigger an avalanche breaking on buried weak layer today. You can trigger avalanches from the bottom of the slope, from adjacent slopes, or from a distance. Cracking, collapsing, and recent avalanches are all signs of a dangerous snowpack. The most dangerous slopes are steeper than around 35 degrees, face west to north through southeast.

Look for signs of wind-loading like lens-shaped pillows and textured snow surfaces below ridgelines and along steep gully walls to identify suspect areas. You can find safer riding options at lower elevations where the slab is not present, on lower-angle slopes, and in areas sheltered from the wind.

An incoming winter storm will bring snow to the area overnight and into tomorrow. Expect avalanche hazard to rise, and watch for rapidly changing conditions.

According to the Ouray News, Marshall’s body was not able to be recovered until January 8 due to the region’s elevated avalanche danger. “The volume of natural and skier-triggered avalanches over the past week is clear evidence of a weak and problematic snowpack,” the January 10 forecast stated. “At all elevations, the snowpack is slowly adjusting to the recent load.”

Read more about the full avalanche report here.

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  1. At no time should all six people in an avalanche class get buried, including the guide. This is an unfortunate indication that people are becoming complacent as backcountry skiing sadly becomes too popular.

    • Dan SnowRider says:

      Rudi – Good for you that you get to survive all your experiences, thus far, and get to judge those whom you have no idea about. Backcountry skiing is not too popular, except for you when they poach your lines, and need not be done in avalanche-prone locations to be enjoyable. Lack of knowledge about the dangers of avalanches, and people inadvertently finding themselves in a dangerous situation, however, is proportional to the growing popularity. You are correct that it’s a bad thing all 6 in the class, with guide, got caught in an avalanche, sympathetic though it was…they may have been trying to rescue someone from the initial one and got caught unaware. You just don’t know, so just sit-down. I commend those there, despite the tragedy, that were attempting to increase their knowledge.

    • Considering the report is not out, your response is an indication that your opinion is complacently ignorant.

    • And now that the report is out we know that the situation was far worse than the most “cynical” and “negative” among us assumed. Getting the whole group you were paid to protect and educate caught in an avalanche on an east facing slope in colorado in January is completely unnecessary and uncalled for.


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