This morning, rescuers will evaluate the safety of continuing a search for a snowmobiler who was buried by an avalanche Wednesday afternoon in the Sharkstooth area of the La Plata Mountains just west of the La Plata-Montezuma county line.
“This is some of the most extreme terrain out there,” Montezuma County Undersheriff Lynda Carter said Wednesday night. “We’ll continue the search as conditions and weather permit.”
Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell will head up to the area to survey the slide area from a ridge above the slide path.
“The sheriff himself is an expert sledder,” Carter said, “and he’s going up tomorrow with a couple of the guys and people from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to assess the scene.”
The missing snowmobiler has been identified as Anthony Robert Yates. His companions – Chris Sharp, Bryce Rogers, Rodney Rule and Rod Oliver – all escaped with minor cuts and scrapes after digging themselves out.
“They were very, very lucky,” Carter said.
Ten rescuers were on scene Wednesday afternoon, including three snowmobilers with six crew members and two helicopters carrying four rescuers and a rescue dog.
“We were able to probe down 8 to 10 feet in what is 30 feet of snow,” Carter said. “We found his sled and his helmet, but he wasn’t in it.”
The snowmobilers left Mancos Wednesday morning and were about 20 miles into the mountains when the avalanche caught them. An emergency call was made to the Mancos Fire Department.
“They were so far back in there, we had to establish our command post 20 miles away and use cellphones on the tops of peaks to relay information,” Carter said. “There is nothing up there. Our radios didn’t even work back there.”
By early evening, they had still received little information, she said.
“We’re standing at a Forest Service road gate in the mud at night in 15-degree weather,” Carter said. “It was the worst feeling, having the families standing around and not being able to tell them who was safe and who wasn’t.”
The avalanche occurred between 10,500 and 11,000 feet elevation, Carter said. It began at a width of 150 yards and slid into a funnel 30 yards wide, where the snow now is 30 to 34 feet deep.
Seven people, including a Wolf Creek Ski Area patrolman, have died in avalanches in Colorado this winter, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported. Nineteen are dead in the U.S. thus far in the 2013-14 season.
“This is what happens when we don’t have a lot of snow at normal levels,” Carter said. “People go further and further into the backcountry looking for snow for recreation.”
And while there is a lot of snow in the backcountry after several large storms in the last month, avalanche danger is high because heavy snow layers aren’t bonded one to another.
“The conditions are dangerous all over,” Carter said. “These were all expert snowmobilers equipped to go back there. You can do everything right and still have a bad outcome. People need to just stay out of the backcountry.”