Local man killed in avalanche northwest of Crested Butte

B-Rad on a snowmobile off of Ruby

by Mark Reaman

A 32-year-old Crested Butte man died in an avalanche off of Ruby Mountain last week. Daniel Bradly (Brad, B-Rad) Sethness died at the Gunnison Valley Hospital on Thursday, January 21 at about 10 p.m. According to the Mt. Crested Butte police report, he had been caught and buried in an avalanche earlier that day, around 2 p.m.

Sethness was part of a group of locals that were using snowmobiles to ski and snowboard the eastern flank of the south bowl of Ruby. According to the police report, it appeared the backcountry group had been using a snowmobile to tow snowboarders to a jump when the slide broke loose, carrying the snowmobile to a downhill tree well.

In addition to the group members who dug out Sethness, employees of Irwin Guides responded to the scene.

In a press release from Eleven and Irwin Guides, the company said many of the guides knew Sethness personally and were heartbroken at the loss.

“At approximately 2 p.m. on January 21, 2016, Eleven’s on-mountain staff was alerted to an avalanche at the base of Ruby Mountain, which they were told contained one victim that had already been excavated by his friends. This avalanche was not in Eleven’s permitted area and did not involve any of their clients or staff,” the release stated.

“Upon being alerted to the incident, Eleven’s on-mountain team notified their town dispatch located at 330 Belleview Ave. and requested that they activate Emergency Procedures. Two of Eleven’s guide staff responded to the scene as Good Samaritans with the company medical kit. When the guides arrived on scene they began performing compressions, CPR and working with the AED [automated external defibrillator] on the victim. Responding guides decided to transport the patient via snowmobile and Orion sled to the trailhead to meet an ambulance, continuing compressions and CPR the entire way. From the time Eleven’s team was alerted to the time the patient was in the ambulance at the trailhead was under an hour,” the release said.

At the trailhead, Crested Butte EMTs took over medical service and transported Sethness to the local hospital, where he was pronounced dead later that night.

The Crested Butte Avalanche Center had reported avalanche danger in that area as “considerable” at the time of the incident. Executive director and lead forecaster Zach Guy conducted an investigation at the scene and said Sethness and another rider on the snowmobile had “unintentionally triggered a large soft slab avalanche that failed in old snow layers. We had a weak crust/facet layer form during our early January dry spell. This persistent weak layer was subsequently buried by a three-foot thick slab that formed during our weeklong stormy period prior to the accident. The victim and one of his partners were riding a snowmobile together low on the slope. Their weight was enough to collapse this buried weak layer, and send a fracture up the slope to the avalanche starting zone above them.”

The crown of the avalanche was 95 cm thick on average and 500 feet wide, and ran 140 vertical feet.

“The avalanche failed on deeper, older facet layers, a type of weak layer that produces notoriously tricky and unusual avalanches. This type of avalanche problem, which we term ‘persistent slab avalanches,’ is not unusual for our Crested Butte snowpack,” Guy said. “In fact, we deal with them most of the winter here; some days they are more likely or reactive than others. The location of the accident is adjacent to a commonly traveled snowmobile route that accesses the benches below Ruby, Owen and Purple. These types of slides are infrequently triggered from this road because the snowpack structure develops differently where heavy snowmobile traffic disturbs the layering. Furthermore, the slope that avalanched isn’t as ‘classic’ or easily recognized when you think of paths such as Red Lady Bowl, Climax Chutes, or Schuylkill Ridge. Even though the slope is relatively small, it still has the right ingredients to avalanche: it rolls over steeply, up to 42 degrees, on a sparsely gladed, wind-loaded pitch. Given the depth and extent of the avalanche triggered on that slope, the debris piled up impressively deep, up to several meters thick, especially near trees that amplified the burial depth.”

Guy interviewed members of the ski party after the accident. He said they were aware of the situation. “Those guys were aware of avalanche danger. They had read the avalanche advisory, knew there was active wind-loading that day, and had opted out of plans to go skiing on higher slopes,” he said. “They weren’t trying to push into big, aggressive terrain. They defaulted to build and session a jump in smaller, rolling terrain that was less exposed to wind. The sad truth about avalanche fatalities is that a lot of them involve small slopes. We often focus on and steer away from the big slopes during dangerous conditions, but it can be harder to recognize or conceptualize the danger posed by smaller slopes.”

A gathering to celebrate Brad’s life will be held Saturday evening, January 30 at Bonez in Crested Butte.

Check Also

Mt. CB clarifying town council and town manager roles

Hiring consultant to create consensus on responsibilities and expectations [  By Kendra Walker  ] Mt. …