Site of Sharkstooth avalanche remains dangerous

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Despite an air reconnaissance mission on Wednesday, the body of a missing Montezuma County snowmobiler has yet to be recovered.

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell and avalanche expert Dale Atkins surveyed the Sharkstooth Peak avalanche chute again from a helicopter on Wednesday, March 26. A ground team of four expert snowmobilers rode to the top of the mountain, above the slide area, for ground support.

“There is still a large concentration of snow in the slide area, and it was snowing during the recon mission,” Spruell reported on the department’s Facebook page.

An avalanche buried Rob Yates, 47, in the high mountains near Sharkstooth Peak on March 5. Due to the severe danger and remote area, the search was called off two days later.

Yates was part of a five-man group of snowmobilers in the Bear Creek drainage near Sharkstooth Peak when the avalanche occurred. Yates snowmobile and helmet were found, but search and rescue teams were unable to locate his body. He remains missing and is presumed dead.

Spruell reported the snowmobile that was dug out from under several feet of snow on March 6 was visible from the air on Wednesday, and helicopter crews worked to airlift the snowmobile from the scene.

Officials said they’d meet with family members this week to determine best and safest options to resume the search for the victim’s body.

Yates and his wife, Tanya, were married in 1991. The couple has a 21-year-old son, Bradey Rey.

Located in the La Plata Mountains north of Mancos, Sharkstooth Peak’s elevation is 11,868 feet.

Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said a final report on the accident is expected next week.

He described this winter’s avalanche season as worse than average, due to the eight fatalities.

“That is up from our average of six,” he said. “The season was not incredibly unusual, but we did see larger than normal avalanches that were more destructive.”

On March 5, the day of the La Plata mountain slide, the danger rating for the Southern San Juan zone was Moderate (Level 2 out of 5) at all elevations, according to the CAIC.

The recent storm has increased the avalanche danger “considerably in the north and south San Juans,” Lazar said.

Snowmobiling in the backcountry is inherently risky, he said, but safety precautions can minimize risks.

Checking the avalanche forecast before departure; carry avalanche equipment, including avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe, and a partner.

“The key is to choose terrain that is appropriate for the given conditions,” Lazar said.

Backcountry skiers also face avalanche dangers. On March 16 an avalanche injured a skier on Yellow Mountain near Ophir. Two skiers departed from Trout Lake and ascended the southwest slopes of Yellow Mountain with intention of skiing the Serpent Couloir, a northeast facing slope that descends into Waterfall Creek on the opposite side of the ridge.

According to the CAIC, the avalanche danger was Moderate near and above treeline on that day.

The first skier traversed into the couloir without incident. When the second skier entered, he triggered a slab avalanche 10 feet above his skis.

“He initially rode on top of the slab for 30 to 40 feet before it knocked him off his feet,” the report states. “He was carried through the remainder of the couloir, at times swimming to stay on top of the debris.”

While being carried through the upper couloir, skier 2 hit a rock, breaking his leg. He was transported to Montrose Memorial hospital by Telluride Helitrax where he was treated for a broken femur.

A skier traverses Serpent Couloir near Ophir on March 16 moments before being swept away in an avalanche. The snowpack is cracking above and around him. Enlargephoto

Colorado Avalanche Information Center

A skier traverses Serpent Couloir near Ophir on March 16 moments before being swept away in an avalanche. The snowpack is cracking above and around him.