Death raises interest of state

Officials visiting site of avalanche to get answers

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This morning, officials from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center are expected to visit the site where a 34-year-old Steamboat Springs man lost his life Sunday when he was buried in an avalanche.

Officials from the state office, based in Golden, will help local authorities answer some questions about the avalanche that killed Sean Patrick Clancy. It was the first avalanche death in Routt County in about 30 years.

Clancy was with a group skiing on Farwell Mountain when the avalanche was triggered at about 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Clancy was later uncovered about 4:30 p.m. He had been buried in about 5 feet of snow, said Routt County Coroner Doug Allen.

"It is a tragic loss," said Allen, who was a friend of Clancy's.

Clancy, an experienced backcountry skier, was with five other people who had traveled to the area on snowmobiles.

"We call what they were doing a hybrid," said Sheriff John Warner, whose office is investigating the incident. "The group had snowmobiled into the area and then were planning to downhill ski."

Clancy and the group had packed snowmobiles with their skiing gear and left Hahn's Peak Village at about 11:30 a.m. The group hadn't been on the mountain long when the avalanche occurred.

Prior to Clancy's first run down the face of Farwell, three other people in his group had successfully skied down, Warner said.

"A snowmobile took them as far as they could get," Warner said. Clancy "was 20 to 30 yards down when the avalanche broke loose behind him. The avalanche caught up to him and took him under."

The group saw the slide and immediately went to the man's rescue. While four of the skiers dug into the heavy snow and used probes to try to find Clancy, a fifth skier headed out of the backcountry on a snowmobile.

That person was able to get to Steamboat Lake Outfitters about an hour and a half later and place a telephone call to authorities.

Clancy was not wearing a locator device recommended for backcountry use, Warner said. The device starts beeping when a skier is buried and can help others locate the person.

"Three of the skiers did have beacons," Warner said. "But unfortunately, the victim did not have one on."

But Jeff Hirschboeck, the avalanche team leader for the Steamboat Ski Area, is not so sure a beacon would have saved Clancy's life.

"They are only as good as the operator," Hirschboeck said. "They are not a fool-proof device by any means.

"If a person is really good with one, they can get within a couple of feet in less than five minutes. I have heard of a lot of cases where people are found in minutes but then it takes time to dig them out."

Search and Rescue personnel arrived at the scene about an hour after the call came in. The searchers consisted of about 45 people from the Sheriff's Office, Routt County Search and Rescue, Steamboat Lake Outfitters and High Mountain Snowmobile Tours.

The four skiers who were desperately digging for their friend were just inches from where Clancy was later found by Pepper, a search and rescue dog, Warner said.

"His friends were digging about eight inches away from where he was found," he said. "It was a pretty crappy day. I hate to see that happen to anyone."

Officials from the state avalanche office will help authorities assess what the danger was and examine the different snow surfaces of the slide, Warner said.

"This doesn't happen very often," Warner said. "They are the experts."

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the last time a person died in an avalanche in Routt County was Dec. 13, 1972. On that day, a skier was buried at the Steamboat Ski Area.

The area where Clancy was skiing overlooks Pearl Lake. Farwell Mountain is a broad-shouldered hump and is free of timber. The area is popular for snowmobilers, Warner said.

"I didn't suspect a skier would be a victim in that area," Warner said. "I thought it would be a snowmobiler. We get numerous snowmobilers in that area."

Warner and Hirschboeck stressed people planning to go into the backcountry should be careful.

"An avalanche (risk) is extremely high because of the weather we are having," he said. "Anybody going cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling should use extra precaution. There have been three other reported avalanches in the Clark area."

Hirschboeck agreed.

"All you need is a 35-degree angle, an open slope and the right layers of snow," he said. "We don't have much of the hazardous-looking terrain, but there are places around here that have a track record of sliding. Right now, we don't have a strong snowpack. These types of things can happen. I would advise everyone to take all the necessary precautions. Don't get lured into a white trap."

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