A 26-year-old Steamboat Springs man died Monday in an avalanche on Soda Mountain.
Michael Gebhardt was backcountry skiing when an avalanche triggered in an area just northwest of Buffalo Pass. Gebhardt was in the backcountry with his brother, who was visiting, and two local friends, Routt County Sheriff Lt. Richard Wood said.
The death is the first avalanche-related death in Colorado this winter and the first in Routt County since 2001. The accident occurred on a high-risk avalanche slope known as the Flume of Doom, about five miles from Dry Lake Campground.
Gebhardt was a professional ski tuner at Extreme Tuning and was a talented backcountry skier with a huge heart and a knack for making people laugh, his good friend Dan Vandevender said.
"There was nothing that could stop that kid. Every day it was go, go, go," he said. "He was a 100 percent, happy go-lucky guy."
Gebhardt had plans to enter extreme skiing competitions next month.
"He loved skiing, loved every aspect about it," Vandevender said.
At about 12:30 p.m. Monday, Gebhardt was dropped off at the top of the slope by one of his friends on a snowmobile. He was about halfway down the slope when the avalanche started and caught him, Routt County Search and Rescue Incident Commander Scott Havener said.
Gebhardt was the first one in the party down the slope. His two friends were at the bottom of the slope waiting with snowmobiles and watched as the avalanche moved down the mountain, Wood said.
The brother, who was skiing above the avalanche when it triggered, had lost sight of Gebhardt. He heard the friends yelling from below and continued down the mountain to help.
Gebhardt, who was wearing an avalanche beacon, was buried in about three feet of snow. It took eight minutes for the other men to find him and dig him out. The group had one shovel, Havener said.
The friends administered CPR; however, they were unable to save the man. Medical officials determined he was dead when they arrived on scene about an hour later. No one else in the group was injured.
One of the men called for help from a cell phone. Two of the men stayed on scene, and another took a snowmobile to Summit Lake to meet search and rescue workers and guide them back to the scene, Havener said.
Avalanche danger was still very high when rescue workers arrived on scene, Havener said. About 30 feet of snow slid in the avalanche that buried Gebhardt and snow remained above that area and was capable of breaking.
All the search and rescue workers had avalanche beacons, Havener said, and they tried to have only one person in the avalanche zone at a time.
Eric Deering, director of snow safety for Steamboat Powdercats, said avalanche conditions are the worst he has seen in the Buff Pass area for the past four or five years.
Steamboat Powdercats does daily skiing and snowmobile tours in the Buff Pass area. Deering watches for avalanche activity and does frequent digs to test snow conditions.
The high-risk avalanche conditions are a result of a lack of early season snow, Deering said. When the area receives little early season snow, the snow becomes stressed, weak and sugary. The conditions worsened when last week's storm arrived and covered Buff Pass with very warm and wet snow. The area also received heavy winds.
"The way the snowpack is set up this year, there are quite a few dangerous parts. We can expect to see more problems this year," Deering said.
The Flume of Doom is a textbook set-up for avalanches, Deering said, and is the most likely spot on Buff Pass for avalanche activity.
"Often good avalanche terrain is good skiing terrain," Deering said.
He advised backcountry enthusiasts to be cautious and check the avalanche forecast before heading out.
"We are blessed with quite a safe snowpack, but I think we still need to be aware of it. This early season snow was exceptional for us," Deering said.
Late in the winter of 2001, Routt County experienced its first avalanche fatality in almost 30 years. Sean Clancy, 34, a local construction worker, died in a snow slide on Farwell Mountain in North Routt on March 18. He was a member of a party that was using snowmobiles to access untracked skiing.
Clancy was buried three to four feet deep and was found by an avalanche rescue dog three hours after the accident. The dog found Clancy within minutes of arriving at the site.
Gebhardt's death, the first avalanche death in Routt County since Clancy's, was a blow to many of his friends in a tight-knit Steamboat circle, Vandevender said.
Gebhardt came to Steamboat Springs from New York. He often could be found with his black dog, Puma. He enjoyed mountain biking, motor crossed in the summer and was a Yankees fan.
Gebhardt owned a snowmobile and loved to ski in the backcountry, Vandevender said.
"When he walked into a place, the place lit up," Vandevender said. "He was star quality."
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