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Avalanche claims two lives up Brush Creek

Local rescuers respond over the weekend

By Mark Reaman

Two backcountry skiers training for this year’s Grand Traverse were caught in an avalanche up Brush Creek and killed on Saturday, February 16. The two men, who resided in the Roaring Fork Valley, were crossing “Death Pass,” which is a steep section of the Grand Traverse route, when they apparently triggered the slide that buried them. Dozens of local rescuers responded to the incident both Saturday and Sunday in what at first was hoped to be a rescue but turned into a recovery. The two bodies were recovered Sunday afternoon.

Owen Green, 27, and Michael Goerne, 37, were both lacrosse coaches at Aspen High School. Green was the boyfriend of Kali Kopf, the niece of Crested Butte local Chris Kopf. Chris had accompanied Green on the same backcountry route just after Christmas.

“In late December my brother Rick, Owen and I skied to the Friend’s Hut—we took the same route, and there was very little snow then—and so our trek through Death Pass was a non-event,” Chris explained. “He knew the perils of the backcountry, and of Death Pass—we talked about it. He had been through there twice. His partner, also from Aspen/ Snowmass, had competed in The Power of Four and was an experienced back country skier.”

Kopf said that based on GPS tracking, “somewhere between 8:39 a.m. and 8:49 a.m. they were swept downhill approximately 210 feet.”

According to Crested Butte Avalanche Center forecaster Eric Murrow, the avalanche danger was rated “considerable” (3 out of 5) on Saturday, February 16. “An Avalanche Warning was issued on Friday morning and ran from 6 a.m. Friday, February 15 through 8 a.m. Saturday. On Saturday morning a Special Avalanche Advisory was issued from Saturday the 16th at 6 a.m. through Tuesday, February 19 at 5 a.m.,” he stated.

Randy Felix, Crested Butte Search and Rescue—Mountain Rescue Team president, said the group got the call at 8:02 p.m. Saturday. “Approximately 11 hours had passed from the estimated time of accident until CBSAR received the call,” he explained. “CBSAR felt it warranted to try to locate these individuals that night so search and rescue fielded a team of five rescuers and four support rescuers at approximately 9:30 p.m.”We had CareFlight 4 flying the first night as well but it had to turn around due to weather and could not reach the accident site on Saturday.”

When the group left the Brush Creek trailhead at about 10 p.m. they encountered very difficult travel conditions due to deep unconsolidated snow and no track to follow. Once on skis, CBSAR chose not to follow the normal route along the road due to avalanche hazards, instead, dropped into the creek bottom and carefully chose a safer route.

Initial scene evaluation

“We eventually tied in with the skiers’ skin track after crossing Brush Creek at the normal road crossing,” Felix explained. “We made it to the start of Death Pass at 1:30 a.m. We immediately saw evidence of a fresh avalanche. We saw a skin track leading into Death Pass and the avalanche and no signs of tracks leading out the other side. We know the avalanche had taken place at approximately 8:30 in the morning from their GPS tracking and the subsequent updates from their GPS tracker throughout the day and night were in that exact location at or near the bottom of the gully on Death Pass. There were no GPS points beyond Death Pass.

“Unfortunately, CBSAR was not able to safely go onto the slide path and down the debris as there was significant hang fire and large snow blocks that fractured but had not yet slid on both flanks of the avalanche,” Felix continued.

“All other routes down to the gully went through steep avalanche terrain and considering what we were looking at as well as evaluating every possible route down, we could not justify putting rescuers down in that terrain at that moment. That was a very difficult decision and one we did not take lightly. We looked at all options available to us at the time. We did a beacon search from our vantage point on the trail and picked up two faint beacon signals at the maximum range of our transceivers. We could not see any signs of the skiers on the snow surface. Approximately 16 hours had gone by at this point since the initial avalanche. Due to the amount of time and below zero temps and no visual clues with the addition of two faint beacon signals, we unfortunately believed this to now be an avalanche recovery.”

The team members made it back to the trailhead about 3:30 a.m. with the plan to start out again at 7 a.m.

Sunday recovery

According to Murrow, the avalanche danger rating for the Saturday night and Sunday missions were rated “Considerable” with a Special Avalanche Advisory in place.

“On Sunday, we had 15 rescuers respond as well as support from the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department and the Crested Butte Fire Protection District, who set up the landing zone at the Brush Creek airport for CareFlight of the Rockies out of Montrose, who was our air asset throughout the day,” said Felix. “Crested Butte SAR is very fortunate to have team members who are on Crested Butte Ski Patrol of which we brought in two professional ski patrollers to utilize aspects of the Rapid Avalanche Deployment program that we are a part of. We also have team members who are forecasters with the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a flight paramedic with CareFlight of the Rockies, climbing rangers from the Black Canyon National Park, professional firefighters and paramedics and many other top-notch highly skilled community members dedicated to help our fellow backcountry users.

“As a coordinator of all this, it was amazing to see how all of these highly trained individuals worked together as a team with a common goal,” Felix continued. “I have an immense amount of respect for all my team members. This camaraderie is what consistently keeps us going during these difficult and sad missions.”

Felix said the team was fortunate to have had a good weather window in the period of unsettled weather with heavy snowfall. “We were to be supported by CareFlight of the Rockies with CareFlight 4 out of Montrose,” he noted. “This great organization dedicated themselves to us for the entire operational period or as long as weather would permit. It is worth noting that this organization donated their time and resources free of charge. We owe them a debt of gratitude as they played an important role in the successful recovery of our backcountry comrades.”

Protecting the rescuers

Once at the avalanche site and after careful examination of the existing avalanche hazard, Felix said it was determined that after a bit of mitigation work they would safely be able to enter the slope and debris zone.

“Our ski patrol members ski cut the hazard, then conducted an initial beacon search, immediately picking up two signals,” he said. “Shortly after picking up the signals, CBSAR was able to recover both individuals buried under the avalanche debris. It was with heavy hearts that we conducted this operation.

“We constructed a technical rope system to uphaul the individuals through the runout zone and up the slope, which was approximately 250 feet. We then skied the victims to the landing zone and flew them back to town to be with their families,” Felix concluded.

Murrow, the Crested Butte Avalanche Center forecaster, was on scene as well and is a member of the Crested Butte Search and Rescue team. “As a rescuer you hold onto a bit of hope that maybe things are not as they seem until you have made the recovery and have a definitive answer,” he relayed. “This is part of being an avalanche professional and member of the Crested Butte Mountain Rescue Team; the sense of duty and providing closure for loved ones makes the process a bit easier as well as having team members and colleagues with you while performing the task.”

All SAR members were out of the field by 6 p.m.

Chris Kopf said the family’s heartfelt gratitude goes out to all those who braved the elements to recover the skiers. “Special thanks to the men and women from Crested Butte Search and Rescue, Crested Butte Avalanche Control, Crested Butte Ski Patrol and Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte Police Departments and others who were responders,” he emphasized.

“I was in communication with members of these teams before, during and after their mission,” Kopf continued. “They put themselves in harm’s way due to the severe avalanche conditions that still existed. We all hope we never need them—but they are there. The first night they were out until 3:30 a.m. and then put together another team and headed back out. Amazing!”

Chris’ brother Rick is Kali’s father and he said the members of both families are hurting but appreciative of the local effort. “It’s a tough deal all the way around,” he said. “We all appreciate the effort of the search and rescue guys, knowing they went out there in those conditions to help. For people to go out there and look for them was incredibly touching to all of us. And then to go back out Sunday? Wow. They brought closure to a bad situation and we appreciate those efforts. You are lucky to have such people in your community.”

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