Gunnison man dies in Anthracite avalanche

He was not just a patient… he was also a friend…

By Mark Reaman

A somewhat unusual and tricky addition to the local snowpack is playing havoc with regional avalanche conditions and has contributed to several slides over the last month, including one on Sunday in the Anthracites that took the life of an experienced backcountry skier.

The Gunnison man was killed in the Playground area of the Anthracite mountains west of Crested Butte Sunday afternoon. The Gunnison County coroner said 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 on Monday. “But that’s still a pending conclusion. It is certainly a major loss to our community.”

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 in “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 (CBSAR), Western Search and Rescue along with a CareFlight helicopter out of Montrose were called to the scene. The Irwin Guides cat skiing operation also provided assistance.

CB Search and Rescue president Randy Felix said the 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. “Communication was difficult with some delays from the InReach communicating back to Gunnison Dispatch. While CBSAR was mobilizing a team, the Irwin Guides operation reached out to CBSAR saying they could provide assistance, so Irwin 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 the Western Mountain Rescue Team was called and arrived 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, 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.”

The sheriff’s department said the CareFlight helicopter crew attempted lifesaving efforts, but the skier died on scene due to his injuries. “CareFlight removed the male skier from the scene and transferred him to law enforcement and the Gunnison County Coroner at the Gunnison Airport. The other three skiers were able to self-extricate themselves without assistance,” the press release stated.

“The help we received from Irwin Guides, Western Mountain Rescue, a couple of his close friends in the field, the Gunnison Sheriff’s office, the Mt. CB police department, the Colorado Search and Rescue Association and CareFlight were amazing,” said Felix. “CBSAR would like to thank all who were involved in providing assistance to the rescue effort. We are extremely sad to lose our friend, community member, outdoorsman, hunter, backcountry skier and all-around standup person we should all hope to emulate.”

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.

CB Avalanche Center lead forecaster Zach Guy said surface hoar is adding to the normal persistent slab problem Crested Butte is familiar with.

“For the past month we’ve been dealing with an unusually large and widespread surface hoar layer (those weak, feathery crystals), something we don’t experience every year,” Guy explained. “In Crested Butte, we’re all familiar with the persistent slab problem and this is another persistent weak layer. However, surface hoar has a reputation for being notoriously tricky. It’s well-known in the northern latitudes such as Canada for being the number one culprit in avalanche accidents. We don’t see it as often around here and it’s causing issues for our backcountry community this past month. 

“Buried surface hoar is fickle; it can go quiet and then ‘wakes up’ after a minor snowfall event,” continued Guy. “It can hide lurking on some slopes but not others. Several riders can cross a slope uneventfully, and the fourth or fifth or tenth rider triggers it.”

Felix again emphasized the need for people travelling into the backcountry to be prepared. “Even after these tragic accidents, we know people are going to continue to get after it in the backcountry. It’s one of the reasons we live here,” he summarized. “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.”

Memorial service for Eric on Saturday

A community gathering to celebrate the life of Eric Freson will be held Saturday afternoon, February 17 in Gunnison. 

Eric is survived by his parents Tony and Monica Freson, sister Claire Freson and many friends. Please join Eric’s family and friends on Saturday the 17th from 2-5 p.m. at the Western Colorado University ballroom. Bring photographs and your favorite stories to share. Food and beverages will be provided. 

In lieu of flowers or gifts please consider donating to ‘go-fund-me: Eric Freson’ to cover costs along with contributions to be further donated to organizations Eric has identified. Donations can also be made directly to Gunnison Bank & Trust, Eric Freson Memorial Fund. 

A more extensive “In Memory” tribute to Eric will be included in next week’s paper.

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