A Renowned Colorado Avalanche School Faces a Death on Its Watch
The accident highlights an industry at a crossroads and raises a crucial question: As safety schools boom, who is responsible for making sure the students come home?
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Tyler George stood up in the 132-year-old building he was raised in, surrounded by what is typically one of the most dangerous snowpacks in America, and stared at a roomful of backcountry skiers who were there to learn how not to die in an avalanche.
It was Friday night, January 4, 2019, the first day of a three-day advanced-safety course taught by the Silverton Avalanche School (SAS) in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
The course was based at the St. Paul Lodge, a backcountry refuge owned by George’s family that sits just above 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass. George, 40, was working as the hutkeeper that weekend, but he knew the snowpack intimately and had taken his first snow-safety course as a teenager. His father, noted British mountaineer and avalanche educator Chris George, started teaching for SAS around 1980, and Tyler grew up in its midst. Sandy Kobrock, the lead instructor, often called him to get a read on local conditions, and had asked him to address the Level 2 class of ten students and one assistant instructor. After dinner, the six-foot-four, blond-haired and blue-eyed George stood at the table and explained that he had seen a number of large avalanches run recently, that the snowpack remained fragile, and that weird things were happening. “I’ve backed off more lines this year than I have in a long time,” he said. “You know, there is no shame in just walking away from something and saying, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ ”
After he spoke, George went into the kitchen to do dishes. The students split into two groups of five and began planning their routes for the next day. One group, led by Kobrock, intended to dig snow pits nearby, on the east side of Highway 550, in relatively flat terrain where avalanches weren’t a concern. The other group, led by a 26-year-old guide named Zach Lovell, was planning a longer ski tour. Lovell handed his students topographical maps of the west side of Highway 550, including upper Senator Beck Basin—an area that past generations of school staff had avoided due to its steep terrain—and gave them instructions to identify risky slopes and chart a route that avoided them. The maps came from a program called CalTopo that uses colored shading to denote a slope’s steepness. The group spent hours plotting options under the glow of headlamps. As they homed in on a likely route, Lovell provided photos of the terrain to supplement the maps.
Ultimately, they decided to climb for two miles and 2,300 vertical feet into Senator Beck, topping out on a 13,510-foot summit known locally as South Telluride Peak. They were determined to minimize exposure to avalanche terrain, which generally means slopes steeper than 30 degrees, but only Lovell and one of the students had ever been to the basin. Satisfied that their plan achieved that objective, they went to sleep around 10:30 P.M.
The next morning, Dave Marshall, a member of Kobrock’s group, started having an eerie feeling about the day. His son, Pete, was in the other group, and Dave worried about the safety of their route. And George, who normally would go skiing or do chores while the class was in the field, was asked by Kobrock, just before she left with her students to dig snow pits, if he would hang around the lodge with a radio as a safety measure—something he’d never been asked to do in more than two decades of hosting avalanche courses at the lodge. A few minutes later, Lovell, hurrying out the door, told George that his group intended to ascend a series of short benches known as the Landry Sneak into Senator Beck Basin. It was the first George had heard of their plan, and he knew it meant two things: their terrain choice carried potential avalanche risk, and the two groups would be miles apart. George told Lovell he didn’t think it was a good idea. Lovell looked at George “almost like I was speaking a different language,” George recalls, and did not respond.
Lovell and his students departed at 9:15 and met Jasper Thompson, the course’s safety officer, halfway down their short ski to the highway. Thompson read aloud the day’s avalanche forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: for the first time in ten days, the CAIC had dropped the danger from considerable (level three of five) to moderate (level two)—a sign that the snowpack had stabilized. But moderate is a notoriously fickle rating, because it means that human-triggered avalanches are still possible. (From 1996 to 2006, half of all Colorado avalanche deaths, which average about five per year, occurred in moderate conditions.) Thompson didn’t read out the report’s Summary, a more detailed account, which included a note that “forecasters reported worrisome snowpack test results along the US 550 corridor” the day before. “This provides clear evidence that you can trigger an avalanche breaking on buried weak layers today,” the report said.
The group proceeded to the pass, crossed Highway 550, and started climbing into Senator Beck under a clear sky. They went out of their way to avoid a number of small slopes that were steep enough to slide. At about 12,700 feet, they dug a pit on a southeast-facing slope to assess the snowpack. It looked OK. They kept going uphill until almost 2 P.M., at which point they realized that it was too late to complete their initial objective. From a small knob known as Point 13,106, the group had two choices: ski down their skin track, which they knew was safe, or drop into a wide bowl below them.
The CalTopo map indicated that the left edge of the bowl was never steeper than 30 degrees. They discussed their options, including the potential to remotely trigger an avalanche on slopes to their right if they skied the bowl. One group member, who asked not to be named, expressed hesitation about skiing the bowl. Lovell, however, seemed confident. Two of the students recalled him saying that they would all be fine, so long as they took it slow and spaced themselves properly. They agreed to proceed.
Basic safety protocol dictates skiing avalanche terrain one person at a time—that way only one person is exposed to a potential slide. Lovell explained that he would ski first, to establish a boundary on the right. He then instructed each student to drop in after the prior skier had descended the upper part of the slope, hastening the group’s progress but also placing multiple people on the run at once. One of the students, Andrew Reed, nervously locked eyes with the lone woman in the group.
Before they prepared to drop in, Marshell Thompson (no relation to safety officer Jasper Thompson), a 26-year-old Silverton local who lived in a converted school bus, was having trouble getting into his telemark bindings, so he stepped out from behind Lovell and moved to the back of the line. This shifted Pete Marshall, a 40-year-old father of two from Longmont, Colorado, into the second position.
The students watched Lovell drop in and ski out of sight.