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Local backcountry skier caught in avalanche above Copper Creek

Recovering in Grand Junction

By Alissa Johnson

A local skier took the ride of his life last week when he triggered an avalanche off a sub-ridge of White Mountain above Copper Creek.

The avalanche carried Sean Crossen, 46, over a cliff band and more than 1,000 vertical feet before he came to rest on top of about three feet of debris. He sustained several serious injuries, but with the help of his ski partner was able to begin evacuating down the Copper Creek Trail.

He was met by Crested Butte Search and Rescue (CBSAR) and is now recovering in Grand Junction.

According to Crossen, he and Pete Sowar began their trek from the Snodgrass Trailhead the morning of Wednesday, February 1. They skied down the backside of the ski area and then skinned across the East River and Deer Creek and up to Zachary Peak, right next to El Nacho Couloir. Crossen described it as a small peak on the ridge in front of White Rock.

“When we got on the ridge, the winds were a lot higher than expected. We thought it was supposed to be 20 to 25 miles an hour with gusts to 30, but it was more like steady wind at 30 with gusts up to 40 or 45,” Crossen said.

Crossen and Sowar considered turning around, but eventually reached the peak and were able to see into the couloir they hoped to ski, a northwest aspect they’ve been looking at for years. “To our knowledge, no one has ever skied that chute from the summit back to Copper Creek,” Crossen said.

Sowar entered the couloir to make sure the chute didn’t end in a cliff band. Communicating with Crossen by radio, Crossen said Sowar “made it through two cruxes of the cliffs and could see the third one. We could make it through a sliver in the cliff band.”

Because the snow was a little punchy, Sowar told Crossen to enter the couloir on skier’s left. Crossen worked his way into the chute and toward the firmer snow. As he got a bit deeper into the chute, he heard a loud crack.

“It was like a loud fire cracker went off and shot up into the air, and then a long crack went above and below me, and instantly all I could see was all the snow breaking up into fist-sized pieces,” Crossen said.

He tried to ski left across the avalanche path, but the avalanche pulled him backward. And while the moving snow at first seemed to Crossen as if it was two feet deep, it became what felt like four to eight feet deep and headed straight for the cliff bands.

Crossen said he caught air three or four times, leaving the snow, launching into the air and then landing, feeling the impact on different parts of his body. He lost his skis and poles, and though he was not wearing a helmet, said his goggles saved him at one point when he hit his face on snow or a rock.

Crossen then did what he described as several flips and cartwheels and bounced over the final cliff band, which was approximately 50 feet. “That seemed like an eternity in the air…,” he said, noting that his first thought after landing was, “Oh my gosh, I’m alive. When the avalanche went, my first thought was I can’t die. I have to fight because of my family and children.”

Crossen’s right arm and shoulder were stuck in the snow, his arm facing the wrong way, and he would ultimately learn that he had broken some ribs, his nose, an ankle, his shoulder and his arm, the latter a compound fracture. Yet he was determined to start moving toward Gothic and the search and rescue team.

Sowar, who was above Crossen by the time he landed, was able to communicate with him by radio and use his cell phone, which had just enough coverage, to call for help. When he reached Crossen, he used a neck warmer to wrap Crossen’s bleeding arm, a sweatshirt to create a sling, and an extra down coat from Crossen’s pack to help keep him warm and hold his arm in place.

Sowar also found one of Crossen’s skis, and was able to adjust the binding on one of his own, which was a demo and adjustable, to fit Crossen. The two men then skied a few hundred vertical feet down to the valley floor, Sowar on one ski. Crossen knew exactly where they were—mile 2.2 at the Copper Creek trail, near an old miner’s cabin called the Zachary shack. Sowar suggested starting a fire in the cabin’s wood stove, but Crossen wanted to keep moving. He was determined to get as far down Copper Creek as he could to rendezvous with the rescue team.

“I was walking at a snail’s pace on my skis without skins,” Crossen said.

Crested Butte Search and Recue received the page to mobilize around 2:20 p.m., according to team member Jeff Duke. He managed communication from the Gothic Trailhead at the base of Snodgrass and the rest of the team, about 10 members, proceeded to Gothic. From there, a few team members snowmobiled up Copper Creek.

“It’s pretty narrow between Gothic and Judd Falls. There’s tight terrain with steep hillsides that are difficult to get snowmobiles through… So rather than get multiple people in snowmobiles in dangerous terrain, we limited it to what was really needed,” Duke explained.

The team encountered the skiers in an open field, where Crossen and Sowar had finally hunkered down to get out of the wind and drink water. According to Crossen, the crew gave him pain killers and retied his arm to slow the bleeding. Rather than wait for a toboggan to be brought in, Crossen insisted on riding on one of the snowmobiles.

According to Duke, CBSAR had debated bringing in a helicopter but didn’t want to call it in until they made contact with Crossen.

“When they made contact there were no safe areas to land a helicopter,” Duke said.

The group headed back toward Gothic until they reached a side hill too difficult to snowmobile Crossen across. According to Duke, two CBSAR members then skied a toboggan up to their location to take Crossen the rest of the way to Gothic, where someone—he doesn’t know who—let them use a cabin.

“We got him into the cabin and got him warmed up because he was having hypothermia issues at that point,” Duke said.

The respite also gave the team the chance to reassess his injuries and repackage him for the trip to the trailhead. There, he was transported to Gunnison Valley Hospital by ambulance, after which he was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction by helicopter.

Crossen underwent reconstructive surgery on Thursday for his ankle and his nose, and on Friday for his elbow, arm, and shoulder. By the following Tuesday, he had been transferred to the hospital’s rehabilitation department.

“I’m very happy to be alive. I’ve had a bunch of visitors, and I’m very grateful for all the help from the whole community… I have a son and a daughter, an awesome family, and I really care about them a lot. Backcountry skiing means nothing compared to family,” Crossen said.

Duke credited Crossen and Sowar for the effort they put into their own evacuation. The fact that they “extracted themselves as far as they did was instrumental in the success of the whole mission,” he said.

Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC) executive director Zach Guy also complimented the pair for providing such quick and thorough communication to CBAC. “This helps turn an accident into a learning opportunity for everyone, helps us improve the accuracy of our forecasts, and we submit accident data to a national database for avalanche-related research,” he wrote in his CBAC report.

Visiting the avalanche site the next day, Guy estimated that the avalanche crown was a 12- to 15-inch-thick hard slab, about 25 feet wide. “The slab likely failed on an old crust or faceted layer. The slab caught and carried the skier approximately 1,350 vertical feet, leaving the skier on top of about three feet of debris,” his report stated.

Guy explained to the Crested Butte News that this was a relatively small avalanche in the great scheme of things. “It was the terrain that caused the high consequence,” he said. That said, Guy added that backcountry skiers and snowboarders should, “Be untrusting of the snowpack right now.” (See his assessment of current snow conditions in Backcountry Notes on page 29).

For his part, Crossen expressed his thanks to the search and rescue team. “In life, there are so many times that you can risk doing extreme things and eventually something may or may not happen. But it’s like a deck of cards, and one day you might pick the wrong card. We try to be safe and I’ve always tried my best not to get hurt,” noting that he’s been in plenty of extreme situations where, had something gone wrong, he wouldn’t have made it.

“So in that aspect, I am very lucky. I just want to say thank you to everybody, and life is precious.”

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