Patroller Killed in Wolf Creek Avalanche

(Ed’s note: This story was last updated, below, Nov. 23, at 5:14 p.m. MST.)

2:42 p.m. MST, Nov. 22 — The ski patrol director of the Wolf Creek Ski Area in southern Colorado was killed in an avalanche this morning at the resort.

“On Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 at 7:45 a.m., our Wolf Creek ski patrol director, while working to protect others, was caught in an avalanche which, to our great sadness, he did not survive,” a statement from the resort reads.

“Wolf Creek’s management and all its employees wish to express our deepest regrets at this loss of a wonderful man and close friend. Our sympathy and condolences go out to his wife and two children. To honor him, Wolf Creek will remain closed for the remainder of [today] and, also to honor him, will reopen on
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 8:30 a.m.”

Details of the avalanche accident are unclear at this time. Powder.com spoke with an employee of the resort this morning, but the employee declined to discuss the incident, saying a resort spokesperson would return the call as details become available. The patrol director’s name was not included in the resort’s statement; Powder.com will publish it when it is made available publicly.

Early this morning, Wolf Creek’s phone-in snow report said that, at 6:30 a.m., the resort had received 13 inches of new snow overnight and 16 inches total during the current storm. That message was later switched, just before noon MST; the updated message said: “Wolf Creek Ski Area will be closed, November 22nd, due to the fatality of a staff member. We will reopen on November 23rd at 8:30 a.m. Thank you.”

Contacted in Boulder this morning, Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the CAIC had heard about the incident, but little more.

“Everything we’ve gotten so far is rumor, so it’d be inappropriate for me to talk about it at this time,” Greene told Powder.com. “It sounds like [Wolf Creek’s] trying to put together an official statement.”

At 6:30 a.m. this morning, the CAIC’s forecast for the southern San Juan mountains was upgraded from an “avalanche watch” to an “avalanche warning.”

Greene explained, “We issued an avalanche watch for a bunch of areas … including the southern San Jauns, on Saturday. The watch means if the weather forecast comes through that we’ll update it to a warning; it’s a precursor, our head’s up… But the forecast didn’t come through, but it still looked like things were going to be heading that direction Sunday night into Monday, so we extended that watch into this morning. But this morning, we decided that the southern San Juan area did warrant a warning—for the likelihood of avalanches.”

According to Colorado Ski Country USA, Wolf Creek’s 13 inches was the highest overnight snow totals in the state. “That’s probably true,” Greene said, “and probably because Steamboat’s not open yet.”

“That 13 inches is similar to what we measured at our highway study plot nearby,” Greene continued, “but there was also a lot of scouring and wind… averaging in the 20s and gusting in the 50s since yesterday morning through now, basically. It’s still gusty and windy there. So that classic combo—a lot of new snow and a lot of wind to move a lot of snow and create big wind slabs.” —Tim Mutrie

UPDATE, 6:25 p.m. MST

The Wolf Creek ski patrol director killed early this morning was performing avalanche control work in an area of the resort called “Glory Hole,” located near the top of the Treasure Chair, when he was caught in the avalanche, Powder.com has learned.

“He’s a good guy; pretty darn unfortunate. A really bad day for the ski industry and a really bad day for anybody who enjoys snow,” Dale Atkins, a longtime Colorado avalanche forecaster and ski patroller who is also president-elect of the American Avalanche Association, said in an interview with Powder. “I didn’t know [the victim] well, but I’ve known him for a lot of years, so it hits close to home.”

“He’d been there for a long time and knew the mountain really well, and he’s got a couple young kids… There’s sadness today in the ski community,” Atkins, who is also Recco’s training and education manager, continued. (While many news outlets are reporting the victim’s name, apparently based on the numerous sympathy messages streaming onto Wolf Creek’s Facebook page, out of respect for family and friends Powder.com is electing not to publish it until it is formally released by authorities).

The accident marks the first avalanche death in the U.S. this winter, and the first death via avalanche of an on-duty ski patroller in Colorado since 1993, at Crested Butte. But in each of the last two winters ski patrollers who were working to mitigate avalanche hazard for the skiing public—aka “running control routes”—were caught in avalanches and later died from their injuries; at Jackson Hole, Wyo, on Jan. 6, 2010, and at Squaw Valley, Calif., on March 3, 2009. (More details available at avalanche.org.)

Atkins learned about the tragedy from friends and colleagues in the snow safety industry. “They’ve got a big long ridge, similar to Loveland, that kinda runs east-weasterly, so a lot of north facing terrain on it,” Atkins said. “It’s above tree line and for the most part not super-steep, 30 to 40-ish degree slopes, and not real big ones, but they get a lot of wind loading when the wind blows, and their strongest winds are often out of the southwest. And that’s what they had last night, and boy were they raging.”

“And with 13 inches last night and 18 inches total from this storm, as you can imagine, the patrol was out dealing with hard slabs this morning. And that’s not unusual. Wolf Creek patrol deals with that all the time, and they know the mountain well. But I don’t know if it was a post-control type release, or if they threw a shot and it released behind them… or what. Those details, I haven’t heard, but it could be any one of those scenarios.” —Tim Mutrie

UPDATE, 8:04 p.m. MST

- Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Avalanche Information Center plan to visit the site of the today’s avalanche in the morning, according to CAIC’s Greene. Detailed scene investigations are standard practice following fatal slides; investigators are typically looking for clues that may help reveal a fuller picture of the slide’s anatomy.

- Atkins also provided more relevant history and statistics about fatal avalanches in the United States involving ski patrollers:

Since 1980/81:
• 15 ski patrollers killed in avalanches (including today’s)
• 674 total avalanche fatalities in the U.S. (including today’s)
• 2.2% of those killed were ski patrollers; 7 of 15 killed occurred in Colorado

Patroller avalanche fatality list going back to 1980/81:
• 2010, Nov. Wolf Creek, CO (control work)
• 2010, Jan. Jackson Hole, WY (control work)
• 2009, Mar. Squaw Valley, CA (control work)
• 1996, Feb. Solitude, UT (control work)
• 1994, Dec. Mission Ridge, WA (control work)
• 1993, Apr. Crested Butte, CO (skiing alone in closed area)
• 1989, Feb. Mt Hood Meadows, OR (patrol director – killed in a terrain trap while fixing a rope line)
• 1986, Feb. Jackson Hole, WY (control work)
• 1985, Dec. Jackson Hole, WY (placing a sigh line)
• 1984, Mar. Aspen Highlands, CO (3 killed – control work)
• 1983, Dec. Copper Mountain, CO (control work)
• 1982, Dec. Big Sky, MT (skiing closed area)
• 1981, Mar. Snowmass, CO (control work)

Prior to 1980:
• In the 1970s, an avalanche killed 1 patroller at A-Basin.
• In the 1960s, avalanches killed 1 patroller in 3 separate accidents in Colorado,Wyoming (Snow King), and Idaho. —Tim Mutrie

UPDATE, Nov. 23, 5:14 p.m. MST

The victim of yesterday morning’s avalanche at Wolf Creek has been formally identified as Scott Kay, according to a statement from the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office. Kay 41, a 16-year veteran at Wolf Creek, was the father of two young boys, with his wife, Chantelle, according to a well-reported story in the Durango Herald. He was also a former Marine and veteran of the first Gulf War.

“He was an absolutely amazing dad and an unbelievable husband,” Chantelle Kay said, according to the Herald.

At the time of the avalanche, Kay, according to the Sheriff’s Office statement, was carrying out a routine avalanche control route on skis. Fellow patrollers later found him beneath four feet of snow, using avalanche transceivers and probes, after he failed to respond to radio calls. Resuscitation efforts lasted an hour-and-a-half; he was pronounced dead at 12:15 p.m. by a local coroner.

This morning, investigators from the U.S. Forest Service, the Wolf Creek Ski Area and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) were at the scene of the avalanche, according to the CAIC. “We are working with the ski area and the USFS since this is a workplace accident,” CAIC director Greene said today. “This might delay the official report.”

Meantime, a fund has been established on behalf of Kay’s wife and children:

Chantelle Kay
Bank of the San Juans
(970) 264-1818
PO Box 2830
Pagosa Springs, CO
81147

Also today, the National Ski Patrol issued a statement, saying, in part:

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Patroller Scott Kay,” said NSP Executive Director Tim White. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Scott’s family and the Wolf Creek management and patrol.”

The Wolf Creek Ski Patrol is a member of the NSP’s professional division. Kay is the 23rd ski patroller to die in the line of duty since 1958, according to records kept by the NSP.

“We are devastated by the loss of our great friend Scott Kay,” said NSP Professional Division Director Julie Rust. “He was a wonderful and talented man, a devoted father and husband, and completely proud and dedicated to his Wolf Creek family. There is a large hole in our hearts. We will miss you Scott.” —Tim Mutrie

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