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The Little French Gulch Avalanche in Breckenridge, CO

Updated: May 8, 2020

This is a story about recycling, avalanches, and fate, three things that we probably don’t think will ever cross paths, but they did on November 21, 1985.

In the 1970's, Tim McClure, then 34, moved to Breckenridge from Center, Colorado looking for a little more snow than what he could find in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. After settling into the Breckenridge lifestyle Tim became involved in a number of projects. One of those projects involved Steve Field and Jeffery Bergeron. The three friends were avid telemark skiers, but they also enjoyed getting out on their skinny nordic skis. At the time it seemed like a grand idea to start up a nordic ski touring guide service. With plenty of old mining roads across the Upper Blue River Valley they would have dozens of tours to offer clients. They named their company ‘Lonely Tours’, and rented a space in the upstairs of what is now Kenosha Steak House at the corner of Adams and Main. Between the three men, they really didn’t have any money, but they scrounged together a few pairs of Swallow backcountry nordic skis, some three pin boots and bindings and a few ski skins to use as rentals.

Tim McClure with Anne Aronson (1981); courtesy of Anne Aronson

On Thursday November 21, 1985 Steve and Tim went for a late afternoon ski tour up Little French Gulch, about 3 miles east of Breckenridge. Jeffery had planned to join them, but he had missed his flight back to Denver from Boston on Wednesday, and did not get back to Breckenridge until later on Thursday. Both Tim and Steve had spent time skiing and exploring around the mining cabins and old growth forest in the Little French Gulch basin. Tim was very interested in avalanche science and had taken several classes. Steve, not so much, but he would always defer to Tim’s judgment. Thursday was their first trip into the basin for winter 1985-1986. Steve had an invitation to attend a dinner party back in Breckenridge that evening so they had no plans to stay out long. Now, well up Little French Gulch, Steve, Tim, and Tim’s dog Jackson broke out of the timber and began a traverse along an old mining road leading into the large basin on the north side of Mt Guyot.

The nearby Breckenridge ski area reported 43” of new snow and moderate to strong southwest to northwest winds for the two weeks prior to November 21. Even with almost four feet of new snow there were still areas where grass stuck out of the snow in the upper Little French Gulch Basin. Now out in the open basin, at about 11,600 feet, the two men triggered a large slab avalanche 200 feet above their location, sweeping them into a deep gully. The avalanche was large, 3 to 4 feet deep, 280 feet across, and 800 vertical feet tall. The avalanche buried both men and their dog under tons of snow, some 6 to 10 feet deep. There was no hope of a speedy rescue.

Later that night Steve’s friends began to worry when he did not show for the dinner party. The next morning Rick Hum and Jon Gunson, a friend of both men and the Summit County Rescue Groups coordinator at the time, reported the skiers overdue. Rick and Jeff Hill, who was Steve Field’s roommate at what is now the Amazing Grace restaurant at the corner of Lincoln and French Street, found the missing men’s car at the Sally Barber winter trailhead in French Gulch.

Rick and Jeff began their ski up the complex terrain before the organized rescue arrived. They hoped to find their two friends hunkered down in one of the old cabins in the area, with a story about broken bindings or a tweaked knee. Breaking out near timber line, Rick and Jeff saw a recent, large avalanche in the open basin below the summit of 13,370 foot Mt Guyot. There were ski tracks leading into the avalanche path, and there were no tracks coming out the other side. Both Rick and Jeff understood the odds of anyone surviving an avalanche this large. This did not look good.

Jon Gunson, Scott Yule, John Warner, Bob Kluge, and several other members of the Summit Rescue group staged at the Sally Barber trailhead and transferred rescuers and gear up to the avalanche site where they met Jeff and Rick. Bob, serving as the rescue site commander, formed a probe line with the available rescuers, and at about 2:30 Friday afternoon Steve Field was found, followed soon after by Tim McClure. Tim, Steve, and their dog Jackson had been buried for nearly 24 hours.

Jeffery Bergeron arrived in time on Thursday to race up to the site of the avalanche accident. Jeffery believes his business partners in the Lonely Tours adventure were heading up to an old mining cabin near tree line in Little French Gulch to stock some supplies for future clients. Jeffery had gone to Boston the week prior to find start-up capital for Lonely Tours. He said if he had not missed his flight back to Denver on Wednesday, there’s a good chance he would have been out in the basin with his friends that day, or maybe he would have suggested that they not go any further above timber line. One of those matters of fate that can befall any one of us.

John Warner, a local dentist and mayor of Breckenridge from 2008 to 2016, was the presiding medical officer at the accident site and pronounced Tim and Steve deceased. John was also Tim’s dentist. He remembers being deep in the excavation hole, alone with Tim. He looked at Tim’s two front teeth, on which he had recently done some dental work, and said to Tim, “I’m glad you’ve taken good care of those two teeth Tim.”

Steve Field and Barney Brewer (background) (1983); courtesy of Anne Aronson

Friends say that Tim was a master of all trades, with energy and ideas to spare. Tim was a strong believer in sustainability and recycling. Through his hard work and persistence he helped get the Summit County Recycling program off the ground in 1976. This was one of the earliest programs of its kind in the state. Today the Summit County Recycling program is known as the High Country Conservation Center (HC3) based out of Frisco. Every year in late February or early March, the Breckenridge and Summit County community gather for a fund-raising event supporting the HC3, and to celebrate the lives of both Tim and Steve along with their legacy in Summit County.

written by Scott Toepfer

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