Tragedy struck over the weekend in Colorado when two snowshoers and their dog were killed in an avalanche that occurred off of a popular mountain pass.
On Saturday, January 8, two snowshoers embarked on a trek on North Star Mountain, a 13,614-foot peak that's best known for being located off of Hoosier Pass and directly south of Quandary Peak.
Author's Note: For those familiar with the Quandary Peak climb, this is the large mountain that can be seen to the left of the uphill ridge climb to the summit, on the opposite side of Quandary from the Blue Lakes area found between the two points of prominence.
When an overdue snowshoer report was received on January 9, crews used information provided by friends and family to narrow the search to areas west of Hoosier Pass, in the vicinity of Crystal Lake. The party's vehicle was soon located in the parking lot at the top of Hoosier Pass and Flight for Life was called in to aid with the search.
Evidence of a recent avalanche was found on a flank of North Star Mountain, along with a faint track. Avalanche rescue dogs were deployed into the area and were able to locate the two missing snowshoers and the dog, all of whom were deceased and completely buried by the slide.
The avalanche was located .8 miles north of Hoosier Pass, according to Summit County Rescue Group. The slide was described as 400 feet wide and 250 vertical feet, breaking into old snow layers with a crown of roughly 10 feet.
At the time of the slide, avalanche risk was a top concern in the backcountry due heavy recent snow that landed on an older, weaker snowpack in recent days. While the highest totals of the most recent storm landed farther north of Hoosier Pass, risk was also present in the Hoosier Pass area.
On the morning of the slide, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center published this message:
"In the Central and Southern Mountains it is getting harder to trigger an avalanche, but if you do it will be both large and destructive. The massive amounts of snow we got over the last few weeks turned into a thick and strong slab of snow. This makes it harder to impact the weak snow below, but if you do the avalanche is going to be very large. It's easier to impact that weak layer, and trigger an avalanche, where the slab is thinner."
Exactly what happened in the moments leading up to the deadly North Star Mountain slide remains unknown, though CAIC plans on conducting a deeper investigation into the deadly slide this week.
This deadly incident serves as a reminder to be avalanche aware while in the backcountry, regardless of what activity is underway. It's not just skiers and snowmobilers that can trigger an avalanche. When hiking or on snowshoes, it's especially important to be aware of what terrain is found above a route. Steep slopes can release snow due to movement below.
Thanks goes out to organizations involved in responding to this accident, including the Summit County Sheriff's Office, Summit County Rescue Group, and Flight for Life.
Additional details about this accident will be released later this week.
This is the second fatal avalanche incident of the snowshoeing season, with the first involving a skier that was killed on December 24.
When entering Colorado's backcountry during the snow season, it's crucial to be aware of avalanche risk. Find a regularly updated map on the CAIC website.
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