Deadly avalanche stretched 880 feet
February 16, 2017
Steamboat Springs — Investigators have learned more about the avalanche that killed Steamboat Springs resident Jesse Christensen, but questions remain.
On Wednesday, Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene visited the slide in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area near West Lost Lakes.
The avalanche broke at the ridgeline of a 33-degree slope at an elevation of 10,460 feet. It was two feet deep and ran nearly 400 feet.
Christensen's body was found in some trees in the debris field at the bottom of the slide. Greene said they believe Christensen had been buried about a foot deep before he was dug out by Sean Searle, who had been riding snowbikes Tuesday morning with Christensen. He survived the avalanche.
Greene and Routt County Search and Rescue have not yet interviewed Searle. Garfield County officials could not be reached for comment. Attempts to reach Searle were not successful.
Based on the photos, Search and Rescue Incident Commander Michael Boatwright believes the men were traversing the side of the hill about two thirds of the way up when the avalanche broke.
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Boatwright said the terrain created an especially dangerous avalanche. The debris field was able to compress and potentially cause major trauma to someone stuck in it.
"It hits a pocket, and it all funnels in," Boatwright said.
It is not known how long Christensen was buried before he was uncovered by Searle.
"That's the big mystery," Boatwright said.
After trying to revive Christensen, Searle hiked up to a spot where he could get cellphone reception and send a text message to his wife.
The first rescuer to arrive at Christensen’s location found no obvious signs of trauma.
Both men had avalanche airbag packs, but is unclear whether they had avalanche beacons.
"If they did, they weren't working, and there has been some debate about that," Boatwright said.
It is also not clear why the men were riding in a wilderness area where motorized vehicles are prohibited.
The avalanche broke on a surface hoar layer, which is essentially a layer of large crystals. A hoar frost layer forms on clear, cold nights. Greene said they suspect it formed Jan. 19.
"It's also described as the winter equivalent of dew," Greene said.
Greene said similar weak layers have been observed throughout the region.
"They can stay in the snowpack for a long time," Greene said. "If you hit them in the right place you can still trigger these."
Greene said in order to understand how much of a threat the weak layer is, people should read the daily avalanche forecast.
He also advised people to educate themselves about avalanches and know how to properly use avalanche safety gear.
"A little bit of avalanche training can save your life," Greene said.