Lone Backcountry Skier Killed At Bald Mountain Near Breckenridge, CO

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Avalanche Bald Mountain
The red line marks where the avalanche started and the red X where the skier was found. | Picture: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

A lone backcountry skier triggered an avalanche on the east face of Bald Mountain, about 6.5 miles southeast of Breckenridge on Saturday, April 29, 2023. While the slide was relatively small at only 250ft wide and 10 inches deep, it produced enough destructive force to bury and injure the skier, who has been identified as Benjamin Ryan of Littleton, CO.

The avalanche danger at the time was rated as moderate, Level 2 out of 5. Snowstorms and strong westerly winds throughout the season drifted snow onto easterly-facing slopes. Warm temperatures in April then consolidated this snowpack. Fresh snow fell on April 27 and strong westerly winds added to snow accumulations on top of the old snow. This created inherently poorly bonded layers of snow. As temperatures climbed to a high of 40 F on April 29, this caused a dangerous destabilization along this east face.

The backcountry skier had set off at 7:00 a.m. on April 29, 2023. He reached the summit of Bald Mountain around 10:40 a.m. and he continued south past the summit to the top of a steep, east-facing slope above several rocky chutes. He began his descent at 11:30 a.m. and triggered an avalanche in steep terrain about 300 feet below the summit. The avalanche broke about 10 inches deep in dry, wind drifted snow and quickly picked up speed. It gained mass when it entrained wet surface snow lower down in the chute. The avalanche swept him downhill about 1,700 feet and buried him about two feet deep.

The skier was reported missing by his girlfriend around 5:45 p.m. at which point Summit County Dispatch sent rescue teams and a ‘Flight For Life’ helicopter to look for him. Around 7:00 p.m. the helicopter crew spotted an avalanche on the east face of Bald Mountain. Deputies from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office flew a drone to the scene of the avalanche but were unable to obtain a good view. Around 8:30 p.m., two rescuers from Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG) ascended on climbing skins to the site of the avalanche and searched the area. Benjamin Ryan was located with the help of avalanche rescue transceivers around 11:00 p.m. but SCRG could only confirm his death. Additional SCRG rescuers and Summit County Sheriff’s deputies transported Benjamin’s body to County Road 520 around 3:30 a.m. on April 30, 2023.

While Benjamin Ryan was caught in a relatively small avalanche, this incident shows that a small avalanche can have outsized consequences if you get pushed off a cliff or into a terrain trap. On its descent, the avalanche flowed into wet snow and gathered additional snow and grew in volume, ultimately burying Ryan several feet deep. What started as a dry slab avalanche, only a few inches deep, turned into a significant slide. This sad incident illustrates that even small avalanches can be very dangerous when they entrain snow and grow in size or when they flow into terrain that confines the debris into a deeper pile.

The massive pile of debris at the runout of the avalanche. | Picture: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Unfortunately Benjamin Ryan had been alone in the backcountry that day. There was no way for him to get out of the debris by himself, and there was no one around to help. Traveling alone in the backcountry is riskier than traveling with a partner or in a group. Challenging situations or injuries that are more easily addressed by a team can be difficult or even insurmountable for an individual.

Although difficult situations can be easier to manage with a group, there is nothing inherently wrong with traveling in the backcountry alone. One option for solo backcountry travelers is to wear an avalanche airbag pack. These devices need to be set up correctly and deployed by people in stressful situations. However, it is a device that can be used by a single person, and in the right situation they can limit burial depth or help keep your airway above the snow surface.

Our thoughts are with Benjamin’s family, girlfriend and friends.

Benjamin Ryan. | Picture: Benjamin Ryan’s Obituary

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