Avalanche victims experienced in endeavors

Ski patroller and snowmobiler were skilled in backcountry travel

Avalanche technicians from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center work to excavate a snowmobile from under an estimated 12 feet of snow and debris left by an avalanche, which were found during the search for Robert Yates of Montezuma County. Yates has not been found and is presumed dead, according to a CAIC report. Enlargephoto

Courtesy of Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office

Avalanche technicians from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center work to excavate a snowmobile from under an estimated 12 feet of snow and debris left by an avalanche, which were found during the search for Robert Yates of Montezuma County. Yates has not been found and is presumed dead, according to a CAIC report.

Both men who died in avalanches last week in Southwest Colorado were described as highly experienced in their pursuits.

Colin Sutton, 38, died Tuesday while conducting exploration and snow science research via helicopter just outside Wolf Creek Ski Area on Conejos Peak in the South San Juan Mountains. Wolf Creek had been working on a development plan with the San Juan National Forest, which granted permission to explore adjacent terrain.

“At one time, Wolf Creek had applied for helicopter skiing permits in different areas,” ski area owner Rosanne Pitcher said. “We try to stay in areas where the good snow is, and Conejos Peak is one of those. They were just kind of checking it out for the day.”

She said a group of six skiers was on the mountain at the time of the avalanche, with a two-passenger helicopter in the air.

“It’s a sad thing that happened,” she said. “We’re just really sad.”

Sutton was member of the National Ski Patrol who was impassioned by the alpine environment, Pitcher said. He worked 12 years for the ski area as a highly accomplished mountain professional.

He was trained in basic life support, CPR and was an outdoor emergency-care provider. He was a certified emergency medical technician, a Level III avalanche technician, and a state of Colorado Type I explosives permit possessor and the snow science director for Wolf Creek. Sutton also was a Colorado Rapid Avalanche deployment-qualified dog handler with his black Labrador, Boca.

“We counted on him for a lot of our information,” Pitcher said. “He was one of the best guys in the field.”

According to a news release, Sutton learned to ski at Wolf Creek at age 3. His enthusiasm for the mountains carried across the globe, Pitcher said.

“He followed the snow,” she said. “Chile, Argentina – he couldn’t be in the snow enough. He traveled the world just doing that.”

Just one day after Sutton’s death, five snowmobilers were caught in a massive avalanche on Sharkstooth Peak in the La Plata Mountains west of Durango. One of the five, Robert Yates, has not yet been found.

The search for Yates, of Montezuma County, now is being treated as a recovery. His helmet and snowmobile were found buried under an estimated 12 feet of debris.

Efforts have been deterred because of conditions and weather but will resume again this week.

A CareFlight helicopter from Durango surveyed the area while a Blackhawk from Buckley Air Force Base shuttled eight people at a time to and from a location on Windy Gap to the site at 11,500 feet. There, search party members, avalanche technicians, canine units and more than 20 volunteers scoured the mountain slope, stopping only when conditions were deemed unsafe by experts from Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“We’re going to resume the search on Tuesday, weather permitting,” Montezuma County Undersheriff Lynda Carter said Saturday. She said another Blackhawk, this time from the U.S. Army due to the nature of the search, will be employed, as well as more avalanche recovery-trained canine units from Summit County.

According to a sheriff’s report, the use of explosives may be necessary to alleviate remaining avalanche dangers. CAIC officials said a subsequent slide could deposit another 30 feet of debris to the existing debris pile, also an estimated 30 feet deep.

Yates, in his mid-40s, a husband and father of one, was said to be an extremely accomplished snowmobiler and was helping dislodge another’s machine from snow when the avalanche occurred.

“They were all very experienced,” Carter said about the group of riders Yates was with. “Experts – these were all probably some of the top snowmobilers in the area. They were prepared. They had everything you should take out into the backcountry.”

Carter said March is notorious for snow instability.

“I hope this keeps people out of there until it’s safe,” she said.

bmathis@durangoherald.com