By Mark Reaman
A Gunnison man who was an experienced backcountry skier was killed in an avalanche Sunday afternoon in the Anthracite mountains west of Crested Butte. According to the Gunnison County coroner, 36-year-old Eric Freson died in the tragic accident. Freson was buried in the avalanche but was dug out pretty quickly by his skiing companions.
“The autopsy is not complete, but my initial suspicion is he died from traumatic injuries suffered in the avalanche and not from asphyxia,” Coroner Michael Barnes said. “But that’s still a pending conclusion. It is certainly a major loss to our community.”
Freson was skiing with three friends in the “Playground” area of the Anthracite Range when the avalanche was triggered and he was buried.
According to a Gunnison County sheriff’s office press release, Gunnison dispatch was alerted about the accident about 2:35 p.m. Sunday when the information came “via a Garmin device that a male backcountry skier had been badly injured in an avalanche…The male skier was buried by the avalanche, but three friends also in his skiing party were able to locate and remove him from the snow and debris.”
Crested Butte Search and Rescue, Western Search and Rescue along with a CareFlight helicopter out of Montrose were called to the scene. Irwin Guides also provided assistance.
Crested Butte Search and Rescue president Randy Felix said that organization got word of the avalanche about 3 p.m. Sunday. “One skier sustained major traumatic injuries from the avalanche. There were three other uninjured skiers with the injured skier. They were able to declare their emergency through a Garmin InReach,” he said. “While CBSAR was mobilizing a team, the Irwin Guides operation reached out to CBSAR saying they could provide assistance, so Irwin Guides sent some members into the field to help manage the area and provide communications. Two experienced snowmobile operators from Irwin Guides were able to put in a snowmobile track to the top of the ridge to help with access for Search-and-Rescue.”
Felix said Western Mountain Rescue Team was called in and came up from the Ohio Creek side of the valley and staged at the bottom of the Anthracites for additional resources. The Colorado Search and Rescue Association was also contacted and a helicopter hoist rescue through the Colorado Army National Guard was being planned and mobilized as a backup to CareFlight, but CareFlight 4 from Montrose was called early in the operation and was able to fly to the scene arriving about 50 minutes after getting the call.
“They were able to land approximately 40 yards from the patient,” Felix explained. “They were able to make patient access and attempted resuscitation efforts. Unfortunately, the patient succumbed to his injuries. Having CareFlight 4 being able to fly and land close to the patient was a huge relief. We knew we needed to reach the patient quickly. It was very stressful for SAR members as the patient was in difficult terrain that would have taken a long time to reach by ground.
“We were preparing our members to fly to a lower landing zone in the event CareFlight could not land at the scene,” Felix continued. “CBSAR was also preparing a ground team to enter the field by snowmobile and ski into the scene. CareFlight 4 was crucial to the quick on-scene time of the call. This was not just a patient; he was also a friend. The sense of urgency was as high as it gets.”
Crested Butte Avalanche Center and Colorado Avalanche Information Center investigators went to the accident scene Monday to gather more information for an eventual report on the incident.
Felix emphasized the need to be prepared when venturing into the backcountry. “Please do your best to be prepared for an emergency. Have a way to reach 911 with no cell coverage, have extra layers and a first aid kit and anything else that will prepare you for an injury or accident in the backcountry.”
More information will be in Thursday’s edition of the Crested Butte News. Our condolences go out to Freson’s friends and family.