Missing avalanche victim identified

Search continues in La Plata Mountains

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell coordinates a rescue operation for a missing snowmobiler caught in an avalanche on Wednesday in the La Plata Mountains.

The slide occurred in the Bear Creek drainage on the northeast side of Sharkstooth Peak.  As of press time, Montezuma County resident Rob Yates had yet to be found,  and is feared buried, according to officials. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell coordinates a rescue operation for a missing snowmobiler caught in an avalanche on Wednesday in the La Plata Mountains. The slide occurred in the Bear Creek drainage on the northeast side of Sharkstooth Peak. As of press time, Montezuma County resident Rob Yates had yet to be found, and is feared buried, according to officials.

A search continues for a snowmobiler caught in an avalanche Wednesday in the La Plata Mountains near Sharkstooth Peak.

Local resident Rob Yates is the missing person rescuers are searching for, according to the Montezuma County Sheriff’s office.

“At this point it is still a rescue operation, but as time goes on the chances get slimmer,” said Undersheriff Lynda Carter Thursday morning.

Yates was on a day trip with four local friends, Chris Sharp, Rod Oliver, Rodney Rule, and Bryce Rogers. They were all experienced snowmobilers familiar with the area.

At a briefing Wednesday night at the Mancos Fire Station, rescuers described the search scene as remote backcountry with unstable snowpack.

“It is steep terrain with deep snow,” said Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte. “It was an unfortunate accident.”

Aspromonte said the avalanche was large, spanning 100 yards wide and 3/4 of a mile long. It let loose in a steep chute while Yates was attempting to free a stuck snowmobile, according to rescue officials. The four others were also caught in the slide but were able to escape.

The slide occurred at 10,500 feet on the northeast side of Sharkstooth within the Bear Creek drainage. A snowmobile was found with a probe eight feet under the snow, and the debris flow is estimated to be 30 feet deep.

Undersheriff Carter said the men were wearing avalanche beacons, but no signal has been detected.

Three search dogs and their handlers conducted a grid search of the area, Aspromonte said, but had no results.

Brian Lazar, deputy director for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, reported that the accident is a confirmed burial, based on eye witness accounts.

“The chances for survival are fairly slim,” he said Thursday morning. “He has been under the snow for almost a day. We have investigators on the scene.”

The five left from Mancos Wednesday morning and rode the sleds to Windy Gap. From their they skirted the north side of Sharkstooth, powered up and over a bench and dropped into the Bear Creek drainage where the slide occurred.

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell said 10 rescuers, three snowmobiles and two helicopters searched the area until dark Wednesday. The search resumed Thursday morning and includes expert avalanche investigators and searchers, search dogs, and helicopters.

“If it gets to dangerous for the rescue team from additional avalanches, we will pull them out,” Spruell said. “We don’t want to trigger more slides and put our people at risk.”

Telluride Helitrax, a San Miguel county helicopter ski tour outfit, assisted in the search, Spruell said. A rescue helicopter is also on the scene, and will monitor for a beacon signal from the air.

Spruell said the group was 20 miles into the La Plata mountains when the accident happened. An emergency call was made to the Mancos Fire District Wednesday about 1 p.m. Three snowmobilers stayed at the accident scene while one person rode up to a ridge to call for help.

Avalanche conditions are considered high right now in the backcountry, explained Kirk Underwood, of United Search and Rescue.

“The snowpack is very unstable, with a lot of layers and heavy snow,” he said. “My advice would be to stay away.”

“The were experienced riders with the right equipment,” Carter said. “Backcountry activity is why people live here. This was just a horrific accident.”

This week, on March 4, a member of the Wolf Creek Ski Patrol perished in an avalanche while conducting research outside the ski area boundary, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

So far this winter, seven people have died from avalanches in Colorado.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com