Colorado Avalanche Information Center issues final report on fatal Maroon Bowl avalanche
A fatal avalanche that slid in Maroon Bowl just outside of the Aspen Highlands ski area on March 19 was “small relative to the path” but still had “enough destructive force to bury and destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a wood frame house, or break a few trees,” according to a final report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The slide was up to six feet deep and 1,000 feet wide, running 1,500 vertical feet toward Maroon Creek, the report states. It killed one in a group of three experienced and informed backcountry skiers from Hungary who had avalanche education and carried safety equipment, including airbag backpacks.
The Pitkin County Coroner identified the deceased skier as 54-year-old Gábor Házas from Budapest, Hungary. The CAIC report does not identify the names of the skiers involved in the incident.
The Maroon Bowl is backcountry terrain without avalanche mitigation measures. Travelers can access it by leaving the ski area boundaries of Aspen Highlands along the ridgeline hike toward the inbounds Highland Bowl terrain. The Maroon Bowl terrain includes curved, open slopes as well as some treed areas and some rock features; the terrain funnels down to an exit point on Maroon Creek Road. Skiers can also access some terrain by using uphill skins to ascend the slopes of the bowl.
Skiers were informed, equipped for backcountry travel
The visiting skiers had skied the area the day prior, studied the snowpack and avalanche forecast and made what they believed was a “reasonable” decision to reenter the terrain on March 19, according to report co-author and CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar.
“This particular accident, [the skiers] had actually done quite a bit of homework,” Lazar said in an interview last week.
But that homework did not account for the weak layer near the ground, as the skiers “only dug through the top few feet of the snowpack and found no concerning layers,” according to the report by Lazar and avalanche forecaster Dylan Craybeek that was published on March 25.
The March 19 avalanche broke on a layer of “depth hoar” that had formed on the bottom 50 centimeters of the snowpack. Depth hoar has a sugar-like texture that does not bond well to itself, creating a weak layer that can increase avalanche risk.
“You are more likely to trigger avalanches, particularly breaking on deep, weak layers, like this one did, when you are in steep and rocky terrain,” Lazar said the interview last week. “And they may have actually been okay, if they had stuck to kind of where the snowpack was thickest and deepest, but in this case, they ended up skiing into a thinner rock band, and that allowed them to impact those deeply buried weak layers.”
The skiers had skied through two nearby backcountry terrain areas called the “Green Wood Glades” and “N5” on March 18 “without consequence.”
Their experience skiing and studying the snowpack “boosted their confidence” about stability in another area called “N7,” which is located between the Green Wood Glades and N5. All the terrain could be accessed by leaving Aspen Highlands ski area boundaries to hikers’ right of the inbounds Highland Bowl bootpack route.
On March 19, after a morning of inbounds skiing, the skiers decided to return to the Maroon Bowl and planned to hike just past their descent on March 19 for a slightly longer run to Maroon Creek.
“The three discussed the stable conditions they observed the previous day and that cold temperatures and no new snow would not have changed conditions overnight,” the report states.
However, the skiers “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. “The group descended into such an area the day of the accident, and triggered a very large avalanche from a rocky spot with a shallow snowpack.”
On the day of the fatal slide, the group had hiked to the top of N7, where they left the ski area, and “skied down a short distance and regrouped above a rock band.”
The first skier descended through the rock band and stopped to skiers’ left to watch the second and third skiers descend. The third skier waited above the rocks as the second began his descent; the second skier, who has been identified by the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office as 54-year-old Gábor Házas, “fell forward and began sliding as he skied through the rock band,” according to the report.
“He released a small amount of surface snow and deployed his avalanche airbag,” the report states. “A large avalanche broke to the ground as Skier 2 slid below the rockband. The fracture line came within a few feet of both Skiers 1 and 3. They watched as the avalanche swept Skier 2 down the slope and out of sight.”
Response involved ‘companion rescue,’ efforts from ski patrol and Mountain Rescue Aspen
The two skiers who had not been caught in the slide decided “immediately” that “Skier 1,” who had already descended past the rock band, “would conduct the companion rescue, and Skier 3,” who had waited above the rocks, “would climb back to the ridge and get help from Aspen Highlands ski patrol,” according to the report.
“Skier 3 called 911 at 1:28 PM, and began hiking back towards the ridge,” the report states. “Skier 1 began to search with his avalanche transceiver. “
Ski patrollers had seen the avalanche from patrol headquarters, which are located at the top of Loge Peak with a clear view of Maroon Bowl, and crews “responded immediately.”
“They dropped a rope to Skier 3, who was having difficulty climbing to the ridge in deep unsupportable snow,” according to the report. “They determined that it was too dangerous for ski patrollers to descend Maroon Bowl, and concentrated their efforts on facilitating emergency response and communication with Skier 1.”
Skier 1, who was conducting a search for the skier caught in the slide, detected a transceiver signal after a few minutes and saw part of the skier’s upper body in the avalanche debris. He cleared a few inches of snow from the buried skier’s face and airway within five minutes of the slide but did not detect breaths or a pulse, so the responding skier cleared space around the buried skier’s torso and began CPR.
“Unable to reach Skier 3 by phone, Skier 1 called 911 at 1:58 p.m.” the report states. “He learned that a helicopter was en route and a rescue team was climbing up from Maroon Creek. Skier 1 continued CPR for over an hour. At the advice of rescuers, he ceased resuscitation efforts and concentrated on digging Skier 2 free.”
A helicopter from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control brought in two responders from Mountain Rescue Aspen at 4:36 p.m. They finished extracting the buried skier and loaded both skiers onto the helicopter six minutes later.
“The two rescuers skied down to Maroon Creek road and responders were out of the field shortly after 5 p.m.” the report states.
The report notes that the “very rapid rescue” from responding Skier 1 “was impressive,” but the accident shows “that rapid response times are not always enough to save someone’s life.”
“It is extremely fortunate that the avalanche did not kill all three people,” the report states. “The avalanche fractured to within a few feet of both Skiers 1 and 3. Only by sheer chance were they not caught in the avalanche. Careful assessment of stopping points is critical to ensure that no more than one person at a time is exposed to the threat from avalanches.”
The avalanche danger forecast on March 19 was “moderate,” but as Lazar noted in an interview, that label can be a “misnomer” that does not mean “safe avalanche conditions.”
“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,” Lazar said. “But it still remains possible. … The consequences are no less severe.”
Fatal slide was latest of more than two dozen recent avalanches in area
A series of fall storms in late October and early November had deposited one to three feet of snow throughout the Elk Mountains, but it was followed by a two-week dry spell with sunny days and cold temperatures; consistent snowfall resumed from late November to early March. A six-day dry spell, the longest since November, ended around March 11 with a series of atmospheric river events that brought 31 inches of dense new snow to Aspen Highlands in a little more than a week.
The March 19 avalanche came after a stretch of more than two dozen significant slides in the area.
“Between February 23 and March 8, the CAIC recorded 27 large or very large (D2 or greater) avalanches in the small region between Highlands Ridge and Ashcroft,” the report states. “Many of the avalanches broke in faceted weak layers near the ground. Southwest winds drifting snow into northwest-facing avalanche starting zones was the primary driver of this localized avalanche cycle.”
And on March 11, about a week before the fatal slide, another very large avalanche broke in the Maroon Bowl in an area located looker’s left of the March 19 slide. That avalanche was triggered “sympathetically” while Aspen Highlands snow safety teams were conducting inbounds avalanche mitigation in the Highland Bowl on the other side of the ridgeline, according to the CAIC report on the March 19 incident.
The crown from the March 11 slide was still visible one week later, indicative of dangerous unsupported slabs of snow called “hangfire.”
“You actually have kind of these precariously perched hanging snowfields that did not run in the initial event,” Lazar said in an interview. “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. … You do really want to avoid hangfire in the aftermath of an avalanche, even for quite some time.”
The skiers were aware of the March 11 avalanche, according to the report, but “reasoned that the avalanche was old enough and far away enough from the slopes they intended to ski to pose little concern.”
“This assessment underestimated the impact the March 11 avalanche had on the nearby snowpack,” the report states. “The March 11 avalanche fractured very near where they planned to ski, and left dangerous unsupported slabs above and adjacent to the fracture line. They did not recognize they were skiing on to unsupported hangfire from the March 11 avalanche.”
Colorado up to 10 avalanche fatalities in 2022-23 winter
The CAIC refers to the incident in the report as a “tragic accident,” as with “all of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate.”
The center’s reports aim to help improve understanding, educate the community and help people avoid future avalanche accidents.
The center has recorded 10 avalanche fatalities in Colorado during the 2022-23 winter season so far, including the latest from the March 19 incident in the Maroon Bowl.
The Maroon Bowl accident occurred just two days after another nearby avalanche fatality in the Rapid Creek area southwest of Marble. That March 17 slide caught three backcountry tourers and killed one of them, 36-year-old Glenwood Springs local Joel Schute. As was the case with the Maroon Bowl accident, the touring group near Marble was experienced in the backcountry and carried avalanche safety equipment.
Avalanche fatalities have already outpaced the 2021-22 season, when the CAIC recorded seven deaths in the state.
Another fatal avalanche occurred in the Maroon Bowl in 2018.