Search for 3 swept away in avalanche put on hold

Searchers work the area of an avalanche that carried away four skiers near Ophir Pass on Monday. Because of avalanche danger, the search was suspended Tuesday afternoon. (Courtesy photo/San Juan County Emergency Management)

High avalanche danger caused rescue teams to suspend the search for three people who were swept away in an avalanche Monday near between Silverton and Ouray.

The three individuals were part of a group of friends who were skiing in the backcountry near “the Nose,” in the area of the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek/Ophir Pass.

According to preliminary reports from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the group triggered a large avalanche from a northeast-facing slope that started at about 11,500 feet.

The slide caught four members of the group, carried them off, and buried them. The rest of the group was able to locate and extricate one of the four from the avalanche debris, according to San Juan County Emergency Management.

That person sustained minor injuries.

Search and rescue operations were launched and continued through Monday night, then well into Tuesday afternoon.

Avalanche danger in the area was rated as “considerable,” however, and for the safety of the searchers, operations were suspended until conditions stabilize.

The identities of the three missing skiers has not been released.

“Avalanche danger in the backcountry is always unpredictable regardless of your avalanche knowledge and skills,” San Juan County Emergency Management said, in announcing the suspension of the search and recovery mission.

“It is critical to check the avalanche forecast and avalanche danger prior to venturing into the backcountry. Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us) for avalanche conditions, have your equipment of a beacon, shovel, probe, and make a plan for communication with your ski group.”

The CAIC has recorded seven deadly avalanches in the region and other Western states so far this season.

On Dec. 18, 2020, ski patroller Jeff Schneider was buried and killed in the Anthracite range near Crested Butte. Also on Dec. 18, Dr. Jeff Paffendorf and Albert Perry were caught and killed by an avalanche southeast of Ophir Pass. That same day, an avalanche in Wyoming’s Salt River range killed a snowmobiler from Nevada.

The day after Christmas, a backcountry skier died in an avalanche at First Creek, north of Berthoud Pass.

Utah recorded two avalanche fatalities in January, per CAIC records.

On Jan. 8, a sidecountry rider was caught, buried and killed at Dutch Draw, Park City Ridgeline, and on Jan. 30, a skier was caught, buried and killed, also at Park City Ridgeline, but in the Squaretop location.

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