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Just when you thought avalanche season was ending…
On Friday afternoon, four Silverton, Colorado, local skiers were descending a northeast-facing slope on King Solomon Peak just east of town when a D1.5 avalanche broke, carrying one of the skiers several hundred feet down the slope. According to the Durango Herald, he lost his skis in the slide and while his touring partner was attempting to retrieve his skis for him, another avalanche broke directly above, striking and carrying him down the slope while his friend watched in terror. The skier caught in the second slide, Ryan McClure, was carried over 1,600′ and compound fractured his femur, almost completely separating his leg at the knee according to his group member.
Professional skier and Silverton resident Connor Ryan was the other skier caught in the avalanche, which he documented on his GoPro. In the Instagram post above, Ryan shares two videos: one showing him being violently rag-dolled around in a moving cloud of snow, and the other showing a secondary avalanche that broke after the first, bulleting down the mountain at 5o mph. The videos and accompanying description by Ryan in the post’s caption are hair-raising to say the least.
Ryan wrote in the post, describing the harrowing experience in detail:
Turned 30 yesterday, never been more grateful and inspired to live.
Last week I survived a series of avalanches which could’ve taken my life and nearly took the life of a friend & ski partner.
I’ll discuss the details, decision making, and snowpack more in time. Today I want to acknowledge the ride we went on and what it showed me.
I was caught & carried a few hundred feet and left in an exposed place with tremendous overhead hazard and additional avalanche risk. My friend Ryan (@rymcc199) was caught and carried over 1600 feet and suffered a severe compound fracture of his femur, which separated his leg almost entirely at the knee. Due to the hazards surrounding us, our partners descended a different and more time intensive route after contacting SAR & EMS.
I had to reach Ryan quickly as he lay bleeding. I’ve never been so scared as I was that moment. I had to risk my life in order for a friend to have a chance to live. I didn’t know if I’d get to him fast enough or even reach him safely as I down climbed 1000+ feet of bed surface and hanging hazards. In that moment I felt things I have no words for, things I’d never like to feel again.
When I reached Ryan he was brave despite the bleeding, calmly helping me to save him. He screamed like I’ve never heard as I cranked tourniquets down on his broken leg. After his screams echoed away he thanked me. In the hardest and most painful time he chose to live, repeatedly, bravely. His courage filled me and eventually our whole crew as they reached us in the red snow.
I’d ask Ryan about his pain and he’d remind me that only people who are alive feel pain & that he was going to live. In time we got him onto a @sewalpine rescue sled from my pack and down the slope to SAR as they came up to meet us. As he rode off in the helicopter, we were affirmed he was going to live.
Living is a choice. One worth committing to entirely. You cannot mitigate all the risk in life, and if you did it wouldn’t be a life worth living. The thing that truly protects us from the risks inherent in a good life is community, people who share our values, especially our value of life. People who inspire us to live.
After the skiers were caught in the slide another member of the party used a Garmin satellite communication device to contact rescue services while another toured up to a ridge to acquire cell signal and call Silverton Mountain Rescue for help. Silverton Mountain Rescue responded around 1 p.m. with six rescuers skiing to the site, four approaching on snowmobiles, and three by helicopter while three of them remained on the valley floor to coordinate the rescue. According to the initial incident report shared by Silverton Medical Rescue, the extraction of the victim took place in extremely technical terrain, making a rescue challenging:
“The area where this accident occurred is incredibly difficult to operate in as rescuers, the approach is long, and the descent is very steep and rocky with challenging terrain to move through, especially with a patient. We train for this type of extrication regularly, but no amount of practice prepares you for how much work a real incident takes. This call had a high degree of difficulty, but the Silverton Team worked quickly, professionally, and used advanced technical training to mitigate hazard and move the patient out in an incredibly fast time (given the location of the accident).” – Silverton Medical Rescue
McClure, who Ryan used tourniquets on to slow the bleeding of his compounded femur bone, was eventually flown via a Flight for Life helicopter to a nearby hospital before being taken to Denver for emergency surgery. He is in Denver recovering from his injuries at this time, with a photo in Ryan’s post showing him alert and smiling.
Even though it’s May, the risk of life-threatening avalanches is still inherent in mountain travel, especially in areas still holding a deep snowpack after an exceptional winter in terms of snowfall for most of the western U.S. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, this slide was classified as “R1,” meaning it was very small relative to the possible slide path. Its destructive scale, which was reported as a “D1.5,” translates as “relatively harmless to people” in official avalanche terminology. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s likely one in two parts:
1.) Even a relatively small slide in steep, exposed terrain can have serious consequences.
2.) The probability of a successful rescue once an avalanche occurs depends on the effectiveness of the victim’s touring partners.
In the case of these locals, a small-ish avalanche in extreme terrain nearly cost one of them their leg. However, the extremely efficient and timely response of Ryan and his touring partners along with Silverton Medical Rescue determined the success of this rescue because all parties involved displayed a top-notch response that allowed them to effectively work as a team and extract McClure safely.
Pick your terrain—and your touring partners—wisely.