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Tragedy Strikes Colorado Snowboard Community As Loveland Pass Avalanche Claims Five Lives

Scott Toepfer, a member of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, takes depth measurements every 50 feet at the crown of the avalanche near Loveland Pass on Sunday. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Tragedy struck the Colorado snowboard community this Saturday when four experienced backcountry snowboarders and one skier perished in a massive slide on Loveland Pass during the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering.

The event, which was organized by Yes/Jones/NOW Rep Joe Timlin, who was one of the victims; was put together to promote backcountry safety and gear and as a fundraiser for Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

A look at the zone above Loveland Valley ski area. The crown is visible in the middle right above the switchback on Highway 6. At the bottom of the photo, the top of Loveland Valley’s runs is visible. Photo: Courtesy Drago

CAIC’s preliminary report said the slide was approximately 500 feet wide and four feet deep, and was most likely triggered by the riders who were touring on Loveland Pass a popular backcountry zone located about 55 miles west of Denver and just south of Loveland Ski Area, in the Sheep’s Creek area, just above Loveland Valley.

According to Clear Creek County Sheriff Don Krueger, the victims of the slide included Timlin, 32; Christopher Peters, 32, of Lakewood; Ryan Novack, 33, of Boulder; Ian Lamphere, 36, of Crested Butte; and Rick Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park. Another snowboarder, Jerome Boulay, sales manager for Colorado-based Venture Snowboards was buried and survived. According to Never Summer Sales Manager Mike Gagliardi, who was not at the event but was close to many there, Boulay was buried for an extended period with just his head and arm above snow.

Lisa and Klem Branner from Venture issued the following statement today about Boulay: “On April 20th, an avalanche on Colorado’s Loveland Pass dealt a devastating blow to our tightly-knit backcountry community. We are grateful to report that our employee Jerome Boulay is unharmed, though he is obviously shaken by Saturday’s events.  While Jerome is communicating with the victims’ families, he is refraining from public comment.  Please respect his privacy at this time.  All of us at Venture are deeply saddened by the loss of these five friends and colleagues. They will be sorely missed, and our hearts go out to their families and loved ones.”

Snowboarder Mike Bennett of Dillon told the Denver Posthe dug through hard-packed snow to help free Boulay before finding two others buried about two feet below the surface.

U.S. Route 6 at Loveland Pass, Colorado was closed by the Colorado Department of Transportation near Loveland Ski Area after five backcountry snowboarders and skiers were killed. (Photo: Associated Press)

All of the people involved were wearing beacons, had full avalanche gear, avalanche education, were experienced backcountry travelers and had deep ties to the Colorado snowboarding community, which has been left shell shocked by the news, which came on the heels of another avalanche death on Vail Pass’s Avalanche Bowl earlier last week.

Joe Timlin

Timlin, who lived near Vail in Gypsum, Colorado; was originally from the Midwest, and had become a fixture in the Colorado scene since moving west in 1996 to follow his passion for snowboarding. He previously worked at Emage snow and skate shop in Edwards, and former manager Patrick O’Toole says he was the best employee he had.

In an interview with Shannon “Shayboarder” Johnson, Timlin says; “snowboarding was not just an activity for weekends, It became my lifestyle and more literally, my Life. From the way I dressed, to the color of my hair, to the friends I made in school.” In addition to becoming a rep for Yes, Jones, and NOW, which started after hiking lines in West Vail with DCP, who later became his brother in law, Timlin tuned boards and skis in Vail for the last 12 years. He leaves behind wife Krissy.

“Joe is really about the snowboarding community in Colorado,” said Snowboard Colorado Editor Adam                                                                Schmidt, whose magazine was an event sponsor, in an interview with the Associated Press. “He really stressed making this event about backcountry safety. … Unfortunately, if Mother Nature decides to throw something at you, you can never be too prepared.”

Ian Lamphere

Ian Lamphere, the sole skier in the group, was the Co-owner of Gecko Climbing Skins, and a huge proponent of backcountry safety and avalanche awareness. He was also the co-founder of Backcountry TV and the Stowe Mountain Film Festival. According to his bio on Gecko’s sitehe was also a partner at Stockli Ski USA, an associate producer of Matt Herriger’s film Winter’s Wind, the 2009 volunteer of the year for the Vermont Ski Museum, and a trained heli-ski guide with Alaska Heliskiing in Haines.

Rick Gaukel was an American Mountain Guides Association-certified instructor and Wilderness First Responder.

Around 30 people showed up for the inaugural round of the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering and industry veteran Nic Drago was at the demo for MTN Approach. Drago decided to post up at his truck and wait as groups headed out for the first run of the day around 10:30. Drago was approached by members of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and asked about a visible slide up on the pass. Drago hadn’t seen it earlier and began to get reports that members of the group were stuck in the slide and had apparently triggered it while still in approach mode on their way to their line.

Search and Rescue were on the scene quickly and Drago took charge of keeping people in the parking lot calm and helping coordinate efforts according to others on the scene. Loveland Ski Area eventually opened up one of the closed lodges for the rescue party and sheriff’s department.

VIEW: THUMBS ENLARGE
(image 1 of 4)

Approximate outline of the Sheep Creek avalanche looking south. Data: Dale Atkins

If you get the sense that these riders weren’t novices, you’re correct. They were some of the best backcountry-trained skiers and riders around, and despite their knowledge and deep experience, their lives were taken far too early by the ever unpredictable conditions, which have been particularly dangerous in recent weeks following nearly four feet of spring snow combined with fluctuating temperatures and instable layers that have much of the central Rockies avalanche danger pegged at “Consdierable” by CAIC.

colorado_avalanche_risk

CAIC’s Colorado Avalanche Forecast

Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, says that the avalanche danger in the Rockies is abnormally high for this time of year and that the CAIC site had been trumpeting the dangers leading up to last week’s two slides.

The Loveland Pass slide was the deadliest in Colorado since 1962 and brought the total avalanche fatalities in the state this season to 11.

“We have a mid-winter snowpack even though its April,” explains Greene. “Often that’s not an issue this time of year, and it’s catching people off guard.”

Greene says that the potential exists for even higher danger in the Rockies as spring temperatures begin to rise. “If that happens quickly, the danger could get much worse,” adds Greene. “If it happens more slowly, it may become much safer.”

Greene says that the news hit especially close to home with industry members and avalanche educators in the mix, and says there should be a lesson here. “These people all seemed very educated. We don’t want to cause any more hurt to the friends and family, but we’re trying to connect the dots. This warning was there for many days, especially for north-facing aspects near treeline, where both of these slides occurred.”

Nic Drago is still shaken up by the event and is just beginning to process the emotions that come with the tragedy and also sees a strong lesson here, not about what could have been done differently, but what we can do in the future. “We’re not built with a reverse, we’re built with a forward,” says Drago. “It’s only natural to grieve, but Joe and these guys wouldn’t want us to stop. They’d want us to absorb it. To slow down. To pay attention and be more cautious going forward.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends of family of everyone involved in the recent tragedies in the Colorado high country. We knew several of the people involved personally and are still processing the scope of the tragedy. We understand that it can be difficult to pass up an amazing line, especially if you know what you’re doing and the conditions seem stable, but we also hope that this is the last story of this type that we write for a long time. Please be safe out there, err on the side of caution, and keep an eye on CAIC’s site (or that of your local avalanche information group) if you plan on going in the backcountry. It’s a click that just may save your life.

A flyer for the event that brought the group to Loveland Pass this weekend.