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Maroon Bowl skiers studied snowpack and forecast before fatal avalanche killed one in group of three

A photo from observer Justin Nyberg’s report to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center shows the expansive path of a slide on the backcountry Maroon Bowl near Aspen Highlands. The avalanche caught three skiers and killed one of them on March 19
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
A photo from observer Justin Nyberg’s report to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center shows the expansive path of a slide on the backcountry Maroon Bowl near Aspen Highlands. The avalanche caught three skiers and killed one of them on March 19

A large avalanche caught and killed one in a group of three Hungarian skiers in the Maroon Bowl backcountry area just outside of Aspen Highlands on Sunday. According to the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office, 54-year-old Gábor Házas from Budapest died in the accident.

Brian Lazar, the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, conducted a site investigation with a colleague on Monday to assess the snowpack near the site of the accident.

They found a stiff, dense slab of snow resting on the weak snow at the bottom of the snowpack.

“In most places, that snow is buried deep enough that it is difficult for a human traveling on the snow surface to impact those weak layers,” Lazar said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “However, if you were to find a shallow spot, you could trigger an avalanche that would break near the ground. And that's exactly what happened in the Maroon Bowl accident.”

Lazar also spoke with the survivors of the accident, who told him they had researched the forecast and the snowpack before they skied the area on Sunday.

The CAIC has expressed its “deepest condolences” to the friends and family of those involved in Sunday’s accident. The center will release a full report about the incident within a week.

A photo of the slide in Maroon Bowl on Sunday, March 19, 2023. The three skiers apparently entered the Bowl, just outside the Aspen Highlands' ski area boundary, at the top and near the middle of the bowl.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
A photo of the slide in Maroon Bowl on Sunday, March 19, 2023, from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Lazar shared some of his findings, below with reporter Kaya Williams on Monday afternoon after he returned from the field:

Brian Lazar: This particular accident, [the skiers] had actually done quite a bit of homework. They were not locals, but they had been following the avalanche forecast, and conditions prior to their visit here.

They had actually skied in Maroon Bowl the day prior to the avalanche accident and had actually dug into the upper part of the snowpack, so, you know, having digging in there, having skied in there the previous day, having seen other tracks, gave them some confidence that their thought process for where they wanted to ski on Sunday was reasonable. Of course, in hindsight, that turned out to be a very tragic error.

Kaya Williams: You know, the avalanche forecast has been “moderate,” which doesn't mean there's no risk, but I think some folks might interpret that as less risk than “high” risk, for instance. Is it surprising that an avalanche was triggered here, given the forecast for this area?

Lazar: No. Essentially, it's certainly a misnomer that moderate avalanche danger means safe avalanche conditions. That's by no means the case. It's certainly not as dangerous and in-your-face as when it's, you know, high or extreme avalanche danger. There's avalanche warnings blinking and things like that, because during those really elevated periods of danger, we expect a lot of naturally occurring avalanches, which is running all by themselves, even without a human trigger.

When we get down into kind of moderate or level two out of five danger, it just means that we don't expect naturally occurring avalanches, and that in most places, it's difficult for a human to trigger our weak layers of concern, but it still remains possible. And that's the terminology that's in the North American Avalanche Danger Scale.

And so kind of the situation we're dealing with, like the avalanche in Maroon Bowl, for example, is a lower probability event than what you'd see in things like high avalanche danger, but the consequences are no less severe, should you get something to break.

And when you have avalanches breaking four to six feet deep, the consequences can be unsurvivable, which is of course, the case of this tragic accident.

Williams: I noticed, just being at Highlands recently, that there was another recent slide in the Maroon Bowl. For skiers who see a slide path, even if it happened, say, nine days ago, should that be a red flag for people trying to assess whether they're going into this terrain?

Lazar:  That older slide that’s visible just to the viewers’ left of what was avalanched yesterday, ran on March 11. It's at kind of the height of the loading event from our first atmospheric river in this series. Then we had another one which took place last week, and then now another one's on our doorstep.

The relevance of a particular avalanche on similar aspects and elevations does diminish as you get further away from the event. But in this case, [the March 11 slide] left a lot of snow above the old crown line, and that's what we refer to as "hangfire."

And so you actually have kind of these precariously perched hanging snowfields that did not run in the initial event, and those are things that you just really want to avoid, because they've lost, essentially, the support from the snowpack further down the slope, right? So they're just kind of hanging there.

You do really want to avoid hangfire in the aftermath of an avalanche, even for quite some time. And I would say yes, that would still be relevant even nine days after the event.

Williams: You mentioned it can be kind of a "misnomer" with the moderate classification. Do you think that there's more intense language warranted, or a more conservative forecast to really, really drive home the message that even if there's moderate risk, the consequences are still very high?

Lazar: Yeah, we certainly do our best to try to get that message out there. I mean, the only avalanche danger rating where we say we have generally safe avalanche conditions is low danger, or level one to five.

And so it's important for people to think about moderate avalanche danger as, it's a lower likelihood of triggering an avalanche, it is harder to trigger an avalanche than at higher danger levels, but the consequences are the same.

If you trigger an avalanche, at moderate danger, it's just as dangerous as if it’s at considerable or high danger. It's just that your chances of doing so are lower.

And so we really need people to kind of distinguish between the chances of triggering an avalanche and the consequences if you do. And in this case, we had a lower likelihood snowpack, but the consequences of course, were tragic, right? Fatal.

This interview has been edited and condensed. The web post includes additional transcription from the conversation that provides information on another recent slide in the Maroon Bowl on March 11. 

This story has been updated to reflect that the avalanche did only caught one of three skiers in the group. According to a final report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, one skier was caught and killed in the slide; the fracture line came "within a few feet" of the other two skiers but "by sheer chance" they were not caught.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.
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