A final report on a fatal skier triggered avalanche that killed two Durango backcountry skiers last weekend says it appears the skiers likely triggered the slide while climbing up an avalanche path.
The skier triggered avalanche occurred on a steep slope above tree line. “They went on a day that wasn’t a good day to be there,” the official report said. Other skiers in the area that day were interviewed. They mostly stayed in lower angle areas and in the trees. They noted the dangerous conditions on the higher, steeper and open slopes.
The Avalanche Events
The two skiers – identified as Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, 53, and Albert “Bert” Perry, 55 – left Durango on Saturday morning, December 19, to ski the north face of an area known as Battleship, northwest of Silverton.
The report says the pair reached the trailhead about 10 a.m. They then skied about a mile before coming down a slope into Mineral Creek.
From the bottom, the Colorado Avalanche Center said, they headed east and onto the north face of Battleship. The two made one run, then climbed west through sparse woods toward the center of the north face of Battleship.
It is believed they were traveling uphill in an avalanche path when they triggered the slide, which started above them. It is not uncommon for slides to break above skiers.
“Ascending a big avalanche path during conditions like that is dangerous,” said Ethan Greene, executive director of the CAIC. “It’s a really unfortunate accident.”
The avalanche occurred on a steep slope above tree line. It had a crown face about 12 to 20 inches deep and about 700 feet wide. The avalanche ran 1,600 vertical feet, from the alpine into a tree-line creek bed.
Around 8 p.m., Paffendorf and Perry were reported overdue. Crews with San Juan Search and Recuse began a mission, and a Flight For Life helicopter scanned the area. They found “significant avalanche activity” on Battleship.
Because of the significant avalanche risk and the dangers of traveling at night the search was postponed until morning.
Recovery by Friends
However, three close friends of Paffendorf and Perry went to search for them on their own. They followed tracks to the avalanche debris and used avalanche beacons.
The friends found the pair before midnight at an elevation of about 11,100 feet. Both skiers had deployed their avalanche airbags. The friends excavated the bodies and marked the location. They returned to the trailhead around 2 a.m.
Greene said Paffendorf and Perry were “very experienced backcountry travelers.” But he said conditions so far this year have presented avalanche risks not seen in recent years, so places people may be familiar with could hold dangers that haven’t existed on previous trips.
On the day of the accident the avalanche danger in the San Juan Mountains was “considerable.” It is not the highest risk category but one that highlights possible avalanche danger and the need for sound decision-making.
The unstable snowpack is a result of early season snow in October and dry weather for weeks in November. That caused the snowpack to become weak. Additional snow on top of that weak layer causes avalanches.
Of the pair’s friends’ rescue attempt, the report states that “the three rescuers were willing to accept a level of risk that was not appropriate for Search and Rescue. While they found the bodies hours before Search and Rescue would have, the swifter discovery did not change the outcome of the accident.”
Paffendorf was an anesthesiologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center for the past eight years. Perry was a homebuilder before becoming a realtor for Coldwell Banker Heritage House Realtors in Durango about four years ago.
Friends and colleagues have noted how experienced and familiar the pair was with the terrain.
“This year is a little bit different,” he said. “That place you always go to, think about whether it’s a good day to go there.”