The February 18, 1987 avalanche in the Peak 7 cirque just north of the (at the time) Breckenridge ski area boundary was the worst avalanche accident in Colorado since January 21, 1962 when a large avalanche struck the town of Twin Lakes, killing 7 residents. Avalanches do not come as a surprise in Colorado. Avalanche accidents have plagued mountain communities since the first miners began their search for gold and other valuable minerals in the 1860’s. With a decline in the extraction industries over the last 50 plus years, avalanche encounters have shifted from miners, to recreationists.
The vast majority of today’s avalanche accidents involve recreationists. Most of those accidents happen to skiers and snowboarders. Since the 1950’s Colorado has led the country in avalanche fatalities and Summit County is in the top three counties for fatalities across Colorado. Almost all avalanche accidents occur in what is known as the ‘backcountry’. Many of these accidents happen adjacent to ski area boundaries, which some riders erroneously refer to as the side country. The tragedy in early 1987 brought the need for improved and more readily available avalanche education, avalanche forecast dissemination, and ski area boundary management policies straight to the front of the line.
The following is the incident report from Nick and Mary Logan, two of the many professional ski patrollers involved in the prolonged avalanche rescue in the Peak 7 Bowl.
Peak 7 Bowl: The February 18, 1987 Accident (Nick and Mary Logan)
In central Colorado, a north-south oriented range of peaks runs from the town of Frisco on the north to Hoosier Pass on the Continental Divide some 10 miles (16km) to the south. Thus it was aptly named the Ten Mile Range sometime during the days of the early settlers. Its entire length rises well above timberline with a ‘fourteener’ conveniently placed near Hoosier Pass. Peak 7 Bowl lies in this treeless realm on the east side of the range.
Both historic and contemporary avalanche fatalities have occurred in the area. The local cemetery in Breckenridge, (Valley Brook) on the valley floor 3,000 feet (915m) below Peak 7, offers proof that some people met their fate under a blanket of snow many years before. They were searching for the elusive ore containing gold and silver, and were drawn here by the thousands in the late 1800’s. But this old mining community is now in another boom period-winter recreation. The town of Breckenridge and the Breckenridge Ski Area (occupying Peaks 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10) support each other for existence, and once again people are drawn by the thousands. Once again the snowy torrents have struck.
With a shallow and weak snow cover in the Colorado Rockies, the winter of 1986-87 was worrisome for avalanche forecasters. It was also a season of increased tension among the professional ski patrollers at the Breckenridge Ski Area. Avalanche terrain within the ski area permit had been monitored closely. Early-season depth hoar grew in grand style near the ground and mid-pack faceted grains developed as the winter progressed. Much of the steeper terrain above timberline was not opened until mid winter, and then only after many explosive tests, ski cutting, and boot packing.
But mounting fear of a surprise avalanche was not because of the closely watched in-bounds snowpack, it was the even weaker snow structure in the adjacent backcountry. Peak 7 Bowl, just north of the ski area, was of particular concern. A highly visible area, it attracted a number of skiers. Many of them had no knowledge of avalanches, or of the hazards and risks involved when skiing backcountry terrain. The typical out-of-bounds skiers in Breckenridge claimed knowledge of snow and stability, but most disregarded basic avalanche safety. Many skied without transceiver or shovel and only a select few carried them religiously. These facts, along with the shallow and unstable snowpack, were the cause for great concern among the Breckenridge ski patrollers.
Efforts were made to stave off the inevitable. A free public avalanche awareness seminar, co-sponsored by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and the Breckenridge ski patrol, was given on February 11th. More than 100 people attended this educational service designed to reach those wanting information on avalanche safety. In addition, articles were published in the local newspapers, the CAIC avalanche hotline was displayed several times a day by the local television station, and several businesses gave out CAIC avalanche brochures and hotline cards with hazard rating definitions. The local radio station aired avalanche messages when necessary and aired an interview with the Breckenridge avalanche supervisor about safety precautions.
But something more had to be done. The locals ignored the warnings and other customers appeared not to heed them. There were a few close calls in the bowl, including one fellow from New York who “just followed some tracks.” He ended up having to dig himself out of a slide he triggered, and lost his 160cm rental skis. Not only that, but he rented some others and went into the bowl again to find the ones he’d lost!
The local U.S. Forest Service said we could not prevent access to public land so discussions were held about the possibility of warning our customers with additional signage. Wording of a sign was agreed on by ski area management and its attorney. On February 15th a temporary sign with a blunt and honest message was put in place at the boundary rope “gate” where skiers traversed out of the ski area to Peak 7 Bowl. On the 17th a permanent sign was erected with hope that it would keep “naïve” skiers within the relative safety of the ski area.
The patrol’s morning talks, usually geared toward daily work assignments, became serious discussions on the ability to effect an avalanche rescue in Peak 7 Bowl. The Breckenridge Ski Area had no obligation to respond to an accident, yet the patrol was the closest trained rescue organization and felt a moral obligation to help if necessary. Many key questions were asked: What if only one of the paths in the bowl slid? (Some areas in the runout zone could be overrun from different directions from different paths). Would manpower even be available since the in-bounds obligation had to be met first? Each patroller would have to make a personal decision about whether to go - it would be strictly voluntary. During these meetings, the talk at first was if Peak 7 slides. Early in February it became when Peak 7 slides.
The structure of the backcountry snowpack had progressed to one typically found in a continental climate zone. Peak 7 Bowl felt its first set of ski tracks on January 1st. An avalanche was triggered there the next day (HS-AS-3-O…Hard Slab-Artificially triggered by a Skier-relative size 3-on Old snow) and a fracture line profile revealed weak stratigraphy in a shallow snowcover, 60% of which was comprised of 2-5mm depth hoar grains trying to support a thick, collapsible wind slab. Not a good combination.
Other clues to mounting instability were available. More than 50 cm of snow fell over the next several days and westerly winds of 15-30mph (7-13m/s) were not uncommon. In the same time frame, 13 natural avalanches had been spotted along the Ten Mile Range and there were two slides in Peak 7 Bowl. The CAIC’s local hotline posted a hazard rating of “moderate with areas of high hazard, both above and below treeline, which could collapse and avalanche.” In addition, four avalanche fatalities elsewhere in the state had already attested to the fact that out-of-bounds skiing was not the prudent thing to do this season in Colorado.
Wednesday, February 18th, was a typical work day. Overcast skies produced very light snowfall early. With 15-25cm of new snow above treeline from the night before, many people were again seeking fresh tracks in Peak 7 Bowl. In the early afternoon Nick Logan, working for both CAIC and the Breckenridge ski patrol at the time, was sitting on the rim of Peak 7 Bowl taking pictures, handing out CAIC hotline cards and asking people if they were carrying shovels and transceivers (no one was).
At about 2:00 pm Nick headed back toward the ski area for lunch. Skiing down through powder in the bowl was quite tempting, but knowing the weak snow conditions and avalanche potential he cut back through the boundary rope toward Patrol Headquarters (PHQ). By that time the low traverse leading into the bowl had been heavily skied and the upper traverse to points just above midway in the bowl had seen several passes but there was still plenty of untracked snow. A couple of people had also left the ski area to hike the ridge to Peak 8. From there they could ski north to gain access to the bowl from the very top.
At approximately the same time Nick left the bowl, Kevin Ahern, the patrol director, Paul Miller, the avalanche supervisor, and Mary Logan, the ski patrol accident investigator, were riding the T-bar which services Horseshoe Bowl in the ski area. This lift takes skiers to the 12,000-foot elevation (3660m) and provides excellent access to Peak 7 Bowl for the “out-of-bounders.” They saw skiers in the bowl and commented on the number of tracks - a common sight in the area when fresh powder was available.
As they approached the top of the T-bar they noticed two skiers at the summit of Peak 7. One began his descent and cut south toward gentle terrain after completing several turns. The second skier pushed off. Upon reaching a transition area of this “pocket” of snow, the area collapsed. It propagated a fracture 150 feet (45m) above him that zippered its way down the ridge to the north for 1,600 feet (490m)! He was able to ski out of the slower moving snow along the south flank and onto the same gentle terrain his partner sought earlier. Had he gone farther he would have been taken past the breakover and down the main part of the bowl.
The resulting avalanche: HS-AS-4-G (Hard Slab-Artificially triggered by a Skier-size 4- to the Ground); average crown height, 3-5 feet (1-1.5m); deepest crown 8 feet (2.45m) in two locations; slab density, 250-410 kg/cubic meter); vertical fall, 1,120 feet (340m); starting zone, 32 degrees breaking over to 44 degrees into the bowl; deposition area 800 feet (245m) wide by 1,290 feet (395m) long.
Time seemed to stand still for the three patrollers. An avalanche of this magnitude had never been observed by them. Knowing people had been in the area minutes before, and seeing the immense amount of new snow sliding, the realization of what lay ahead hit hard. It had finally happened! People on the upper part of the T-bar who could see the bowl let out audible gasps. Decisions had to be made quickly. But foremost, safety had to be considered for oneself and for any volunteers willing to help.
At 2:07 pm, Ahern radioed patrol headquarters that there was a large avalanche in Peak 7 Bowl. He requested that the sheriff and county rescue group be notified, and that an avalanche dog be brought to the scene. Ahern, Miller, and Mary Logan skied past the boundary rope to look down into the deposition area. A few people were on the surface of the debris and one was digging someone out with a shovel.
Miller made the decision to go into the area by himself to see if a rescue attempt could be safely implemented. Since the entire ridge and bowl avalanched, the remaining hazard was determined to be minimal. The safe route in for rescue groups would be from the bottom of the bowl and he radioed this back to Ahern. There was easy access from an in-bounds run called Forget-Me-Not which runs adjacent to the ski area boundary.
Mary Logan became the accident site commander and asked for volunteers from the crowd of skiers gathering at the boundary rope. Many of them had just skied the bowl and had witnessed the slide from the T-bar. Instructions were given and people were directed to the site where coordinated rescue operations would begin. An uneasy silence fell on the crowd as many were contemplating their brush with the “white death” and the grim task ahead.
The T-bar and all access to Peak 7 were closed to the public. Management shut down operations on Peak 10 to provide more people for the emergency and Peak 8 patrol headquarters immediately began coordinating equipment and manpower. Many years of practice had prepared us for just such an event and now it was paying off.
The deposition area, later calculated to be 23.7 acres, was an enormous area to search. Looking like ants in a sandbox, a dozen volunteers were scuffing and randomly probing in suspected burial areas, and a beacon search was done without results. The number of missing persons was thought to be four. But that was not easily determined as Miller found it difficult to move through the debris on skis to question witnesses and survivors. Misinformation led searchers astray for the first critical day and to complicate matters only one clue, a ski, was found on the surface.
The two skiers that had skied from the very top (and likely triggered the slide) could see the traverse into the bowl and the route out at the bottom, but the breakover prevented them from seeing most of the terrain. They waited until they thought the bowl was clear before starting to ski down, but from their vantage point they could not see two skiers taking their time looking around and figuring out how they were going to ski down. Also, they didn’t know about the party of four who had been down in the bowl for twenty minutes waiting for a comrade to find his lost ski. This latter group was to become the object of a massive search.
The first column of 14 volunteers was sent in to probe at 2:25 pm. By 3:06 pm, 82 volunteers were organized and coarse probing the debris. Snowcat and snowmobile access to the site was easy. Support equipment and provisions for the rescuers were shuttled in as a long search was anticipated.
At 5:15 pm the first victim was located beneath 4 feet of dense debris. By this time approximately 200 volunteers were involved in the difficult task of probing. Debris depth varied from 10-25 feet (3-8m), and with densities up to 420 kg/cubic meters, it set up like concrete. The search was discontinued at 6:25 pm as cold and darkness were quickly setting in. Any hope of a live recovery had passed and the rescuers safety needed to be considered. A tired and discouraged group of rescuers returned to the base of the ski area for the night.
Early in the morning on the 19th, explosives were dropped from a helicopter onto the remaining areas of snow adjacent the slide. This resulted in another avalanche (HS-AE-3-G, Hard Slab-Explosive triggered-size 3-Ground) on the north end of the bowl. This slide had no impact on the search area, but was done as a precaution to prevent a mishap should anyone stray from the search area. Trained avalanche dogs were sent in next at 8:00 am. They were given an hour to work alone before probe lines were once again sent up through the chunks of torturous debris. The dogs, though used all three days, did not locate a victim. The size of the search area, the depth of the victims, and contamination by many rescuers may have hampered their efforts.
The search continued and at 11:45 am the second victim was found under 6 feet (1.8m) of snow. Shortly afterwards the third victim was found at about the same depth. That left a fourth person still missing. The afternoon seemed an eternity as snow showers and cold temperatures dominated the region. Nick Logan made an arduous trek along the fracture line to gather snow profile data. Searchers again left at dusk knowing they would return the next day.
Finally on the third day of the search, the fourth and final victim was found high in the debris at approximately 1:45 pm. Relief was felt by all, so was the sobering thought of the tragedy of four lives lost.
Epilog: Peak 7 Bowl was eventually incorporated into the ski area boundary. Avalanche safety (and responsibility) was placed in the hands of the Breckenridge ski patrol.
written by Scott Toepfer and Nick and Mary Logan