Update 2/7/21: The CAIC has released its official report on the Ophir avalanche. You can read it here.
On Monday February 1, a group of seven skiers descended a slope in an area locally called The Nose, near Opus Hut in the San Juans. Four of the skiers were caught in an avalanche, carried and fully buried. One was recovered with minor injuries. According to the latest report from the CAIC, the three others are still buried and dangerous conditions have suspended search and rescue efforts. The slide occurred on a northeast facing slope, at approximately 11,500 feet.
If the other skiers are found dead, it will bring Colorado’s avalanche fatalities to seven total for the season, with this being the most deadly incident since five people perished in the Sheep Creek avalanche near Loveland Pass in 2013. The incident arrives after a skier died outside of Park City, Utah last week. Europe is also having a particularly dangerous season, with four skiers caught and killed in the Tyrol region of Austria just this past weekend. According to PlanetSki, the death toll across the Alps regions is 50. The heightened conditions are blamed on large amounts of snow falling on persistent weak layers, not unlike the conditions in Colorado.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that reading about another avalanche fatality feels like a gut punch. As soon as I heard the news of the Ophir accident, I turned to Doug and said, “it could have been us. Or our friends…” (Turns out, we do know one of the victims, though names have not yet been publicly released.) Each reported accident prompts a mixture of shock, confusion and intense sadness. We want to learn from the accidents so we don’t replicate them. We might get angry at those involved, but too often we can see ourselves making similar decisions or skiing in similar conditions. And it is truly tragic do die doing something that brings us all so much joy.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about avalanche fatalities is how they are, for the most part, completely avoidable. We make the choice to go to these places. And this season, avalanche education is more accessible than ever. Courses are available online and in person. Free programs like Know Before You Go and brand-sponsored video series from companies like BCA are available with the click of a mouse or screen tap. On this site, we’ve made a concentrated effort to bring a full repertoire of avalanche content, from basics about gear, to decision making, to managing terrain. But, as we’ve seen in all of Colorado’s avalanche incidents this season involving experienced backcountry travelers, having information does not insulate you from danger.
Outside my office window, at 7200 feet on the edge of Colorado’s West Elk mountains, rain taps the soggy snowpack. It is 33 degrees and forecast to drop throughout the day as that rain turns to snow. On the CAIC website, the two regions that coincide here — Aspen and Gunnison — flash red. An avalanche warning is in effect until Friday. All I can say (or do) is, stay safe. Or just stay home.
Commenters: Please be constructive. No shaming.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.