It was the fourth and final day of skiing for Connor Ryan, a professional skier, and conditions looked promising.
He was working on shooting footage for a follow-up project to his film, “Spirit of the Peaks,” on Friday with three other Silverton-based backcountry skiers. The group had climbed to the 13,222-foot summit King Solomon, and intended to ski the mountain’s north face.
Throughout the day, the skiers had noticed light snow on the surface and took it as a small assurance with respect to the risk of an avalanche.
“We were thinking we were just out for a fun day that wasn’t overly technical,” Ryan said.
But as he began his descent down the 50-degree face, snow broke loose beneath him, toppling him from his feet, ripping the skis from his boots and carrying him several hundred feet. He came to rest atop a pile of debris, physically unhurt but mentally shaken.
Ryan was able to move to a protected zone tucked out of the slide path. After some debate about radios, the group assessed the risk and decided that Silverton local Ryan McClure would ski the snow surface upon which the avalanche had already released and reunite Connor Ryan with his skis.
Aware that the risk of an avalanche may have been higher than originally anticipated, McClure was careful to take precautions.
As he started down the slope, the expert skier performed an advanced maneuver known as a “ski cut,” in which a skier traverses a slope toward a safe spot quickly and aggressively with the intention of testing its reactivity. If an avalanche is going to release, the skier generally has enough momentum and is on a trajectory to a safe spot such that they will escape the slide.
“That dude knows how to do a ski cut in the ’Juans,” Connor Ryan said.
Connor Ryan said drone footage shot by Isaiah Branch-Boyle, one of the skiers in the group waiting on King Solomon’s summit, shows the ski cut sent cracks shooting out 30 feet from McClure and released a deluge of snow from slopes above and adjacent to him.
Typically, springtime can bring more predictable avalanche conditions.
“The snow just did not respond the way that snow typically responds in the San Juans in spring,” Connor Ryan said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had forecast a “Moderate,” or level two of five, avalanche risk that day at the group’s elevation. The primary risk was a wind slab created by drifting snow. Connor Ryan said cornices present on the summit indicated such conditions could have contributed to the accident, although the exact type of slide was not clear.
The CAIC has not yet completed a report on the incident.
“These were February kind of avalanches with the velocity that they had,” Connor Ryan said. “The pockets that came out around Ryan (McClure) were not necessarily huge, but the velocity that the snow had was unprecedented for this time of year.”
In a video taken by Connor Ryan and posted to Instagram, a voice can be heard over the radio: “Avalanche! Avalanche! Avalanche!”
Moments later, a plume of snow comes hurling down the slide path before him.
The slide occurred on a northeast-facing slope of the mountain and was reported to the CAIC as a “loose snow avalanche.”
The slide was classified as “R1,” meaning it was very small relative to the possible slide path. On the destructive scale, observers reported it was a “D1.5,” which is “relatively harmless to people.” In this case, the harm was significant.
When the snow had settled, McClure had slid about 1,600 feet but managed to unbury himself from the slide debris. His voice came over the radio and informed the group that he had a compound fracture of the femur.
“He said it with the composure of someone who's like, ‘Ah well, I did lose my glove and my pole,’” Connor Ryan said.
The fourth member of the group used a Garmin satellite communication device to send out an emergency signal as Branch-Boyle, still atop the summit, called San Juan Expeditions and Silverton Medical Rescue to initiate a rescue.
Wary of lingering avalanche danger on the reactive slope above and around him, Connor Ryan used his ice ax, the only tool he had, to work his way about 1,000 feet down the icy debris to McClure. He managed to collect one of his own skis and one of McClure’s on his way. The skis would be needed to construct the rescue sled Connor Ryan keeps in his pack.
When he got to McClure, Connor Ryan found his friend with a badly broken leg and losing blood.
Connor Ryan used a rubber ski strap to tourniquet McClure’s leg – an agonizing procedure exacerbated, as they would later find out, by two more fractures higher up on the femur. McClure screamed in agony, then looked Connor Ryan in the eye and thanked him.
“This guy is just on another level,” Connor Ryan thought.
Meanwhile, Silverton Medical Rescue was organizing a response with Durango Flight For Life.
The fact that Branch-Boyle took the time to comprehensively communicate the extent of McClure’s injuries to responders was critical, Connor Ryan said. Although the extra time spent might feel like a waste, the details provided over the phone enabled responders to show up fully prepared to save not only McClure’s life, but also his leg.
According to DeAnne Gallegos, spokeswoman for San Juan County, six rescuers were inserted by the Flight For Life helicopter and another four approached on snowmobiles. Three rescuers stayed aboard the helicopter and three more ran an operations base camp on the valley floor.
Over the two hours that elapsed before rescuers arrived, Connor Ryan kept McClure warm and talking and fed him sugary snacks and electrolyte water to stave off hypothermia. The group used Connor Ryan’s rescue sled to move McClure several hundred yards down the slope toward rescuers before the terrain made it too difficult to continue.
Instead, the team used shovels to prepare a platform for the soon-to-be arriving rescue team, who would lower McClure to the valley floor.
Throughout the rescue, Connor Ryan said, the goal changed from saving McClure’s life to saving his leg.
“I thought there was a good chance that maybe we could get him out of there alive by midway through the rescue, but at no point did I think he was going to keep that leg until Silverton Medical Rescue got there and started really working in that direction,” he said.
McClure was flown to Mercy Hospital and is now recovering in Denver.
Looking back at the event, Connor Ryan said skiers should be scrupulous in their preparation for big days in the backcountry. First-aid kits, rescue sleds and the knowledge to use them are must-haves.
“The CAIC does a tremendous job,” he said of the avalanche forecasts. “I think there’s also no substitute for leaving space for understanding the nuance of these places.”
Risk is inherent to the sport, Connor Ryan stressed, and only diligent preparation can ready a skier for such situations. He added that he intends to further his rescue training this summer.
Connor Ryan celebrated his 30th birthday on Sunday in the hospital with McClure, where the two rejoiced in vitality and the thought of skiing together in the future.
In a statement made post-surgery through his partner, McClure expressed his overwhelming gratitude for the fast-acting ski partners, first responders and medical staff.
“It’s obviously tender at the moment and the tears come easy,” Connor Ryan said. “But also, he’s incredibly, incredibly positive about the experience and just so grateful to be to be alive.”