Vail Valley avalanche victims were prepared, but still got caught
Report: trio was avoiding steep slopes and had proper gear, but ended up in a 'terrain trap'
The Feb. 15 avalanche that claimed the lives of Gypsum residents Dillon Block and Cesar “Pollo” Almanza Hernandez caught them and a friend trying to get out of a dangerous area.
A report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center released this week details about what happened that afternoon.
According to the report, Block, Hernandez and a companion started their backcountry trip on snowbikes — off-road motorcycles modified for use in the snow — from Red Sandstone Road north of Vail. The men were riding on low-angle slopes and in meadows, and were avoiding steeper slopes.
After riding into a creek bottom, the riders found themselves in an open area. All three turned around to head back the way they came. It was too late for Block and Hernandez.
The third rider — who remains unidentified — noticed the avalanche start, and rode back into the trees. The slide caught his machine, partially burying the back end.
Hernandez and Block were both buried in the slide.
The third rider tried locating his buried companions and succeeded finding one. He then rode to a nearby yurt for more help.
Volunteers worked to free Block and Hernandez until responders with Vail Mountain Rescue Group arrived on scene at about 9 p.m.
“Given the time elapsed, darkness, increasing snowfall, and no easy way to evaluate the avalanche danger above the site, the group left and returned to the Red Sandstone trailhead,” the report states. A Vail Mountain Rescue Group team returned the next morning to recover the bodies of Hernandez and Block.
Kelli Rohrig is an avalanche instructor, and has experience working around the state.
Rohrig said there’s always something to learn from avalanche information center reports.
Rohrig noted that over 90% of avalanche fatalities and accidents are tied to human factors.
“From a case study standpoint, it’s a great review of where things started to go wrong, and learn from their mistakes,” Rohrig said.
Sometimes mistakes add up. Rohrig noted that the investigation of a fatal avalanche in the San Juan Mountains in early 2019 found numerous mistakes by a group of six people taking a level two avalanche course. One person died in that slide.
But the slide north of Vail was “just sad,” Rohrig said.
“They were trying to turn around and leave,” she said, adding that the group was doing just about everything the right way.
The group was prepared for backcountry travel, the report states. All three were carrying avalanche transceivers, probe poles and shovels.
“Maybe the only thing they could have done to avoid this situation is to use maps or a mobile phone app to look at the area before they left the road,” the report states.
But although conditions were described as “moderate” the day of the slide, there had been plenty of avalanche activity in the Vail/Summit County area. The avalanche forecast for Feb. 15 described “tricky” conditions, the report states.
The area around Vail had received a lot of snow between Feb. 6 and 11, the report states. That snow was driven by strong winds for several days.
Still, weather the day of the accident was described as “mild,” with partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the teens and moderate winds across the ridgetops.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said the group that included Block and Hernandez mostly did everything right, “until they got into a place they didn’t expect.”
By then, it was too late to get out.
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