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Colorado avalanche: 'There was no one left unburied to hear him'

April 25, 2013|By Matt Pearce

This is not a guided event, the organizers had warned, in small letters, at the bottom of an advertisement. Don't forget to bring your brain.

The six men headed out separately from the main group participating in the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering on Saturday -- which was intended to benefit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a safety service, and which had begun at 7 a.m. in the parking lot of the Loveland Ski Area.

They were identified in reports later as Jerome Boulay, Rick Gaukel, Ian Lamphere, Ryan Novack, Christopher Peters and Joseph Timlin, and they'd brought their avalanche safety gear in preparation to navigate the tricky backcountry of Colorado's Rockies.

About 25 people die in avalanches every winter in the United States, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had posted a bulletin warning about the danger of what's known as "deep persistent slabs" -- hardened sheets of snow that, in the springtime, can suddenly shear loose from the sides of mountains and crash violently downhill.

Avalanches, like every other disaster, manifest themselves with varying degrees of magnitude. The arrival of a deep persistent slab is, in the words of the center, "essentially not survivable."

According to a comprehensive report published by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Wednesday, the men studied the center's bulletin on deep persistent slabs, talked about the threat, and left the parking lot a little before 10 a.m.

About 15 minutes later, near Loveland Pass, the men heard a whumpf.

Days later, after experts had a chance to evaluate what, exactly, had happened, the tide of snow that swept down the mountain was measured to be about 800 feet wide -- and at some points 12 feet high -- with enough power, perhaps, to destroy a car.

The slide had been triggered by one or more of the hikers, the report said; they'd spread themselves out across the snow, but not far enough apart.

They'd run away from the avalanche, which pushed the men a few feet into the Sheep Creek gully and buried them -- one of them beneath at least 10 to 12 feet of snow.

Only one man, whom friends identified as Boulay, was close enough to the surface to survive.

The center's report refers to him only as "the survivor":

The survivor was 3rd in line at the time of the accident, and was partially buried in very close proximity (touching) to the two group members in the front of the line.

The survivor came to rest in an upright semi-seated position with his lower left arm free, and his face very near the surface.

He was able to clear the snow from his face, and at that point could breathe freely. He then began slowly moving snow away from his face and head and trying to free his right arm from the snow.

The survivor continued to yell for help, but to no avail, as there was no one left unburied to hear him and no other people in the area.

Boulay lay alone for four hours before he was discovered, next to two bodies.

He has declined all interviews.

"This was a really tragic accident. There's no denying that," Ethan Greene of the Avalanche Information Center told the Associated Press.

A fundraising site said Ian Lamphere was engaged and had a baby girl. Rick Gaukel, a Santa Cruz native, was a first responder and a mountain guide, according to ESPN. The Denver Post has more on the victims' lives here.

Snowboard Colorado magazine, the media sponsor for Saturday's gathering, paid tribute to the victims, but added a warning.

"Unfortunately, this horrible tragedy was a hard lesson that no matter what your experience may be, the backcountry is an uncompromising place and we always urge everyone to use extreme caution," the tribute stated. "Remember these men anytime you snowboard in any uncontrolled area and know you can never be too prepared."

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