Search and rescue attempt takes three days in dangerous terrain
The body of Crested Butte resident Mike Bowen was discovered underneath avalanche debris on Saturday, December 20, following a three-day search and rescue operation.
Bowen had been missing since Wednesday, December 17 when he went backcountry skiing by himself in the Climax/Happy Chutes area on the northeast flank of Mt. Emmons. He was not wearing an avalanche beacon.
Bowen was 36 and was born and raised in Iowa. He was well known by townspeople as an avid backcountry fan with a great sense of humor, and could often be seen serving up espresso at the Buckaroo Beanery.
Search and Rescue received the call on Thursday morning at 7:45 when Bowen’s friends reported him missing.
After several days of searching in dangerous avalanche conditions and inclement weather, an avalanche dog discovered Bowen’s body mid-afternoon on Saturday.
Dozens of people and multiple organizations were involved in the search attempt, including several of Bowen’s friends, members of the Crested Butte Search and Rescue team, Crested Butte Mountain Resort Ski Patrol, Crested Butte Avalanche Center, Western State College Search and Rescue, Mt. Crested Butte Police and Gunnison County Sheriffs.
“We’re incredibly lucky in Gunnison County to have these resources,” says Crested Butte Search and Rescue (CBSAR) team leader Ian Hatchett. “I made a call for a dog team, and the whole A-Team came.”
CBSAR public information officer Nicholas Kempin says, based on information about Bowen’s backcountry habits from friends, and his town bike parked near Peanut Lake, the search began in the Climax/Happy Chutes area on Thursday morning.
Kempin says by dusk on Thursday they were able to find Bowen’s tracks along the mountain ridge, and what appeared to be his tracks descending into the Happy Chutes. “We had a rough idea where we thought he came down,” Kempin says.
Poor visibility, multiple apparent slides, and an unstable snowpack made it difficult to determine where Bowen went from the ridgeline. “We did as best we could, given the visibility… We could really only check things safely from above and below,” Kempin says.
“There’s a huge pressure to get things resolved, but we have to step very carefully in dangerous terrain,” Hatchett says.
Kempin says the Search and Rescue team identified a recent avalanche slide that Bowen may have been caught in, but there was not a way to confirm with the inclement weather and encroaching darkness on Thursday night. There were also several other slides that ran in the immediate vicinity, crossing paths in some areas.
On Friday, Kempin says, searchers were back investigating the slide path they identified the previous day, by probing and systematically searching the avalanche debris.
Hatchett says no additional clues were discovered on Friday, but the team agreed to get back at it again on Saturday.
Around noon on Saturday, CBSAR team member Ben Pritchett found a ski pole in the avalanche debris about two-thirds of the way down the slope.
Crested Butte resident Jake Jones says, “The key clue was Ben Pritchett finding the ski pole. We were pretty close to calling it off. That really invigorated the search.” Jones is a former faculty advisor for the Western State College Search and Rescue team.
After finding the ski pole, the probe team returned to the cliff area and began searching down the slope again, but it was another hour or two before the next clue was discovered.
Crested Butte Professional Ski Patrol’s Sarah Fuld (unaffiliated with CBMR ski patrol) and her trained avalanche rescue dog “Digger” had broken off from the main probe line and were about 100 yards below the cliff band when the dog began digging. Moments later the five-year-old black Labrador retriever was bounding downhill with a hat in his mouth.
“Once he found the hat, I had this gut feeling that the snowboarder was most certainly below us and not stuck on the prominent bench or in the very thick trees above us,” Fuld says.
So Fuld and Digger began searching the tail end of the debris pile near the very bottom of the valley. About half an hour later, Digger began digging in the snow. Fuld went to her dog and discovered he was pulling on Bowen’s boot.
Fuld says the moment they found the body was surreal. “I called up hill and said, ‘I have a boot—I need a shoveler.’ I swear they didn’t believe me at first. I wasn’t sure if I believed me. So I said it again—‘I need a shoveler.’ Digger was still digging and trying to pull on his boot. A shoveler arrived and it became clear that the boot was indeed two boots…”
Gunnison County coroner Frank Vader had not returned phone calls for this article at press time, so there is no official word on the cause of Bowen’s death.
The avalanche Bowen was discovered in was several feet deep and in rugged terrain.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) report provided by Pritchett, “The soft slab avalanche ran approximately 1,500 vertical feet… Based on clues, the avalanche probably carried the victim through a dense grove of small avalanche-trimmed trees, over a 20- to 30-foot cliff band, down a tight gully, and finally into a stand of aspen saplings. It is unclear how the victim came to rest in the next avalanche path over from the initial track entering an adjacent crown. The victim was found lying supine, head downhill, beneath four feet of snow without his snowboard or pack attached (neither were recovered), his jacket unzipped. The one recovered pole was extended fully. The victim was not wearing a transceiver.
“On [December] 16th an Avalanche Warning was in place with high danger at all elevations. While the danger remained high near and above treeline, on the 17th the Crested Butte Avalanche Center and the CAIC reported the danger as considerable below treeline. Between the 15th and 18th, at least six medium sized avalanches ran in the immediate area of the accident.”
This is the second death in Colorado this winter due to an avalanche. A skier was buried and killed by an avalanche north of Aspen on December 14.
There will be a memorial service in Mike’s honor at Oh Be Joyful Church at 10 a.m. on January 3, 2009.