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Skiers killed in avalanche near Vallecito Reservoir are identified

Expert says an unusual amount of snow at lower elevation led to slide
The avalanche site southeast of the Vallecito Reservoir dam where the backcountry skiers James Sutton, 67, and Jurgen Montgomery, 47, were killed. (Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
Feb 26, 2023
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The two backcountry skiers who died in an avalanche southeast of Vallecito Reservoir during the weekend were identified as James Sutton and Jurgen Montgomery on Monday.

Sutton, 67, was a Durango resident and Montgomery, 47, was from Pagosa Springs. Both men have been described as experienced backcountry skiers, according to Colorado Search & Rescue Association spokeswoman Anna DeBattiste.

Montgomery worked as a journeyman lineman for La Plata Electric Association for 16 years. No information was immediately available about Sutton.

An autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday morning. La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith said the cause of death is likely asphyxiation.

The skiers were found at 3:36 a.m. Sunday buried under 3 to 4 feet of snow.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said the two men were equipped with avalanche airbags and neither were deployed during Saturday’s avalanche, indicating the deluge might have taken the skiers by surprise.

“We're still sorting through a lot of the details,” Greene said. “But there's indications that they're both experienced backcountry travelers and could have been caught off guard.”

Avalanches around Vallecito Reservoir are unusual because of its lower elevation, which receives less snow, but the area has received considerable snowfall this winter.

“It’s a place where you typically wouldn't see avalanches,” Greene said. “It just doesn't have the snow conditions that would produce those.”

However, the terrain was in line with what the CAIC typically sees when an avalanche occurs. Greene said avalanches tend to happen on slopes graded between 30 and 45 degrees, and the slope near Vallecito is measured at 38 degrees.

“That's one of the things that people really need to remember is that when you have snow on those steep slopes, there is the potential for avalanches,” he said. “Especially when you see snow on slopes that you don't usually think of as being snow-covered.”

Greene said the amount of snow on the slope and its direction were likely the reasons why the avalanche broke.

Because it was a north-facing slope with little vegetation, it was a “perfect recipe” for producing a weak layer of snow, he said.

The men left to go skiing at 7 a.m. Saturday south of the reservoir with the intention of returning about noon the same day, according to a news release from La Plata County government. After failing to return, someone notified authorities at 9:18 p.m. that the men were missing. The CAIC accident summary estimates the avalanche happened about 11 a.m. Saturday.

Colorado Search and Rescue used cellphone records to locate where the men were likely skiing. Ground crews and a Flight for Life helicopter initiated a search and found ski tracks entering an avalanche debris field but did not see tracks leaving the debris field.


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