Final report of Willow Creek Pass avalanche death released
January 16, 2014
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has completed its investigation of an avalanche that took place on Parkview Mountain, west of Willow Creek Pass in Grand County, that buried and killed George Dirth, 28, of Fraser on New Year's Eve.
The final review of the avalanche details the events leading up to the incident that was responsible for the first avalanche death of the winter season in Colorado.
Dirth and two other split-boarders left their car and began to hike up Parkview Mountain around 9:30 a.m. according to the report. The group had read the avalanche forecast on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's website before leaving on the trip, so the group was aware of the dangers that loomed beneath the snowpack, the report says.
At the time, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center was reporting that persistent slabs were the main concern while recent weather had increased the avalanche danger by adding layers of snow on top of the persistent slabs.
“These guys got him out as quickly as I have ever seen. But it was still 10 minutes, you can’t hold your breath for 10 minutes.”
Grand County Coroner
Persistent slabs are weak layers of snow that linger under the snowpack and can pose avalanche danger well after a number of storms have taken place.
Although the area the group chose to ski was composed of an avalanche path, the group chose to continue with their outing and avoid the avalanche path by staying in less steep and tree filled areas to the sides of the path.
The group ascended through heavy trees to the south of the avalanche path and stopped once to dig a snow pit to check the snowpack's condition and stability. While they observed the persistent weak layers of snow mentioned in the avalanche forecast, tests completed to check the stability of the snowpack did not produce any notable results, according to the report.
"Everyone in the group had (avalanche) training," said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
They began their descent at about 1 p.m., according to the report, and after discussing their descent, began to descend to the south of the path. They stopped after descending a few meters and dug another snow pit to check the snow's stability.
The group elected to traverse north across the avalanche path to gain access to a less steep slope with heavier trees. All three successfully traversed across the avalanche path and they regrouped on the north side of the avalanche path before continuing further.
One of Dirth's skiing partners descended about 30 feet through the trees and stopped in order to watch his partners descend the route.
Dirth was the second skier to begin down the route, though towards the bottom, ended up more into the avalanche path than was planned.
According to the report, Dirth triggered the avalanche near the bottom of where the avalanche took place, causing a slab of snow to break above him.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's report, the avalanche was small in size compared to the avalanche path, though large enough to injure, bury, or kill someone and potentially large enough to damage a car.
"They had made observations and chosen a path that was reasonable," Greene said. "Things went bad when the victim deviated from that path."
The avalanche was 150 feet wide and ran 500 vertical feet with an average crown height of 1.5 feet. The crown of an avalanche is where the top of the avalanche broke away from the snow, leaving a defined cut in the snow.
The avalanche ran through a lot of small timber, which broke up the avalanche flow and created a large powder cloud that obscured visibility.
Dirth traveled between 50 to 100 feet in the avalanche before coming to a rest on his side under two to three feet of snow. His body was bent around a small tree, according to the report. Dirth had a climbing helmet attached to his backpack but was not wearing it at the time of the accident.
Dirth's skiing partners immediately began a search of the avalanche using an avalanche beacon and were able to acquire the signal from Dirth's avalanche beacon in less than a minute.
Once they found the highest signal strength they located Dirth with the avalanche probe on their first attempt and began digging through the snow to try to clear a path for Dirth to breath.
It only took Dirth's skiing partners a few minutes after the avalanche to locate Dirth and they had dug enough snow away to expose his airway in about 10 minutes, according to the report. But Dirth did not have a pulse and was not breathing when they uncovered him and his skiing partners immediately began CPR and continued for 20 minutes, but to no avail.
"It sounds like the group's self-rescue was a tremendous effort and they did a really good job," Greene said. "It's unfortunate that it didn't turn out better."
An autopsy completed by the Grand County Coroner's Office determined Dirth had died from asphyxiation and had absolutely no other injuries, according to Grand County Coroner Brenda Bock.
"These guys got him out as quickly as I have ever seen," Bock said. "But it was still 10 minutes, you can't hold your breath for 10 minutes."
Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334