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Avalanche death raises questions as resorts expand backcountry skiing

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Graphic: The avalanche

The headlines in Colorado papers last February were scary. One warned that avalanche danger was “at an all-time high.” The snow slides were the kind seen every 30 years or so, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Six people had already been killed in the state when Colin Sutton, 38, a longtime Wolf Creek Ski Area patrolman who had grown up in Santa Fe, was buried by a monster slide March 4 about a mile west of Conejos Peak in the San Juan Mountains. He had been testing snow conditions well outside the ski area’s boundary.

Sutton was an EMT and a highly qualified avalanche technician, as well as a licensed blaster, trained to use explosives.

But none of that expertise could save him when a wall of snow released and carried him 1,500 feet down a steep gully and buried him head forward under 5 feet of debris.

Sutton had no pulse when rescuers reached him, and he was pronounced dead at a hospital in Durango four hours later.

At first it seemed like just another in a growing number of avalanche deaths as more and more skiers and snowboarders search for virgin powder and ski basins try to accommodate them. Before 1990, it was rare to have more than 15 people die in avalanches in a season. Since 2000, an average of 39 die a year.

Ski patrol deaths in avalanches, however, are rare. And it turned out that Davey Pitcher, the 52-year-old owner of the Wolf Creek Ski Area, did not have a permit for his ski patrol team to work in the area where Sutton died.

Pitcher’s temporary special-use permit to conduct heli-ski surveys in the Rio Grande National Forest had expired nearly three years earlier.

Now Sutton’s family members and friends are questioning whether the ski basin, in its push to attract more backcountry adventurers, put Sutton in harm’s way.

Albert Durand, Sutton’s stepfather, called the unauthorized patrol mission “a whole cowboy operation, totally mismanaged.” Sending the patrollers into the backcountry by helicopter that day was “gross recklessness,” he said.

Pitcher, who was part of the team that went to the site to rescue Colin, has pleaded not guilty to five federal citations for conducting work activity using a helicopter in the Rio Grande National Forest without written authorization and for using explosives without a permit. A trial date is set for December. He also faces thousands of dollars in fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Pitcher declined to comment on the citations or his plea. But he said, “I lost a close friend with Colin.”

A taste for powder

Sutton’s death was the second involving a member of Wolf Creek’s professional ski patrol in the last five years. In November 2010, Scott Kay, the head of the patrol, was caught in a snow slide inside the ski area boundary while performing avalanche mitigation. He was working on his own, a violation of standard operating procedure, which specifies that work be conducted in groups. He died from asphyxiation. Sutton was on the crew that extracted him.

They were among only three ski patrol members who have died by avalanche since 2010. The other was at Alpine Meadows in California, according to the American Avalanche Association. (In 2009, a patroller at Squaw Valley was working on avalanche controls after a severe winter storm and was buried by an avalanche. And three patrollers were killed in 2006 at Mammoth Mountain when snow beneath them gave way while they were digging out a buried fence near one of the area’s volcanic vents. The resort was fined by the state.)

Speaking about Wolf Creek, Ethan Greene of the Colorado Avalanche Association said, “I can’t think of any other ski area with that many accidents.”

Experts attribute the rise in avalanche deaths to the increase in the number of people with access to the backcountry via improved skiing equipment or snowmobiles.

Larry Heywood, a snow and ski consultant from Homewood, Calif., said many of them have developed a taste for powder and expert terrain, putting pressure on ski areas “in a way that was not occurring 20 years ago.”

Ski resorts are looking for ways to open slopes quickly after a storm to accommodate the powder hounds and to develop “new terrain and advanced terrain to meet customer demand,” Heywood said.

Taos Ski Valley, for example, is opening a new lift to Kachina Peak this season, as well as 35 acres of new gladed terrain at the far end of West Basin Ridge.

Wolf Creek, a small, family-owned, affordable ski area in Southern Colorado popular with New Mexicans, boasts the most snow in Colorado — some 430 natural inches per year. About 45 percent of its terrain is rated advanced or expert.

But it has only 1,600 skiable acres, and Pitcher, an advocate of backcountry riding, wanted the area to grow. In 2012, the resort released a 20-year master plan to add five lifts and 1,000 acres.

In a recent interview, Pitcher said he has been looking at the potential for helicopter skiing in the Rio Grande National Forest since 2004 and has sent patrol groups into the side country and backcountry to document snow data over the years.

“The snowpack is interesting when you get away from Wolf Creek and into areas that had potential,” he said.

But Pitcher said he is not sure about the prospects, in part because of safety and in part because of the explosion in the number of snowmobilers using the area. “A lot of terrain we watched has become very accessible to snowmobiles,” he said. “It’s changed the world and is impacting almost every area we looked at.

“We had reservations prior to this accident, and we have reservations [going forward],” he said.

Violations

Doug Sutton, Colin’s father, who lives in Colorado, said Pitcher told officials he had verbal permission to send crews into the forest. But Doug Sutton believes that by conducting work without a written permit, Pitcher shows he is “a maverick” with “a long history of not following the rules.”

On March 17 — two weeks after Colin Sutton’s death — the acting district ranger for the Rio Grande National Forest formally ordered him to cease all unauthorized helicopter operations.

The five federal citations involved alleged violations on Feb. 11 and on March 3 and 4. Pitcher pleaded not guilty in September. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 24 in U.S. Magistrate Court in Denver, and a tentative trial date is set for Dec. 17.

All the violations are petty crimes, each carrying a maximum penalty of $5,000 and six months in jail.

Pitcher also was cited for two “serious” safety violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with Sutton’s death. The ski patrolman, the citation said, was exposed to hazards due to inadequate avalanche mitigation prior to the March 4 mission.

Pitcher faces up to $14,000 in fines for those two violations. The case is still open.

In the 2012 death of Kay, OSHA issued three citations, according to Steve Yellstrom, one of two assistant area directors for OSHA. Pitcher contested, then agreed to settle for $10,000. The initial penalty was $17,000.

Since 1972, there has been one other OSHA investigation, but it did not lead to a citation.

Sutton’s mother, Connie Durand, said she doesn’t think Colin or other members of the patrol would have been in the area if they had known Pitcher did not have a valid permit.

“I don’t think he would have done it. He was a straight shooter. He had very good judgment,” she said. “They need to be more conscientious. I don’t want this to happen to another mom.”

And, she added, “If they’d followed their legal responsibility, I’d still have my beautiful kid.”

The family members have yet to file any legal action against Pitcher but said they are consulting lawyers.

The Tao of Sutt

Friends described Sutton, an avid outdoorsman and rafting guide during the off-season, as an inspiring, disciplined man with impeccable judgment and limited possessions who tread consciously and lightly on the earth. He kept a sleeping pad in the back of his truck for impromptu adventures, they said. He was always ready to venture off the trail.

There was an aura around him that they named the Tao of Sutt.

He had the ability “to cherish each moment as if it’s the only one,” said William Mushen, an old friend from Santa Fe. “Life [to him] was just one really great trip. He lived like a wise man and a child all in one.”

Andy Byers, a former high school friend and college housemate who now lives in Portland, Ore., said, “I always felt that Colin very effortlessly gave more to the world than he requested. He was pretty unflappable. While others around him were thinking about tomorrow, worried about money, he would shed all those things. He would say, ‘But look, there’s a great sunset.’ He had a way of grounding people in what is important.”

Sutton was born in Colorado and learned to ski from his mother. He was 4 years old, she said, and they were at a little area outside Colorado Springs. She was skiing backward down the slope, holding the tips of his skis together. When she turned around, he was “booking it” down a slope set up for a slalom race. When she told him, “You said you couldn’t ski,” he replied, “You didn’t tell me it was so easy.”

“He was a natural,” she said.

Sutton grew up in Santa Fe and attended Capshaw Middle School and Santa Fe High. He had a close circle of friends who also enjoyed the outdoors.

After graduating from high school, Sutton set off for the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he studied recreational management and sustainable development. He went on to guide skiers in Chile and Argentina and traveled extensively in Europe, twice doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He took a different route each time.

“He had a real thing about going by himself,” Connie Sutton said. He was a listener more than a talker, she said, and “he drew people who would just talk to him.”

Byers said one year Sutton lived almost entirely out of his truck and had only three changes of clothes. He was always ready to drop everything to help a friend move. “He lived a very meaningful life but also a very free one,” Byers said. “He was sort of an inspiration for a lot of us who were ground down into the everyday rat race. If I knew I was going to pass away before 40, that’s what I’d do. Eke out everything. Not in some dead-end career.”

A diligent worker

About 12 years ago, Colin Sutton joined the ski patrol at Wolf Creek. Because of the large amount of snow the area gets, the patrol, which is responsible for avalanche mitigation, keeps busy all season. “He was a magician at what he did. His mantra was always safety first,” said Ryan Dodge, a high school friend and skiing buddy who now works in the sales and marketing side of the industry.

And he was diligent, whether in attention to his studies or his job.

“If he had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to go to work, he would go to bed at 9 p.m.,” said Kevin Brennan, another high school friend who is an accountant in Santa Fe. “He would just go get a pillow and lie down in the corner of the room or get in his truck.”

Once Sutton joined the ski industry, he became a very good skier, Brennan said, and when Wolf Creek began investigating the possibility of helicopter skiing and was surveying the backcountry, “he was psyched to be part of that advance group. We were all jealous to hear about it.”

Sutton and Pitcher, Wolf Creek’s owner, who is also from a Santa Fe family, had a lot in common. Pitcher said they sometimes spoke to each other in phrases known to Northern New Mexicans, such as oralé, meaning something like, “Oh, come on.”

They grew up skiing some of the same places, including Ski Santa Fe. Pitcher’s father, Kingsbury Pitcher, bought the Santa Fe ski area in the mid-1960s and built it into a successful business, finally selling it to the Abruzzo family in 1984. He bought Wolf Creek in 1978.

Pitcher said Sutton “took his work very seriously.”

A risky patrol

The events leading to Sutton’s death began a day before, after a big storm.

On March 3, Pitcher arranged for a helicopter to take four members of Wolf Creek’s ski patrol to North Mountain, about 11 miles southeast of the ski area for training in managing snowpacks. Using explosives, they triggered a very large avalanche on an east-facing slope, according to a detailed report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Then they were lifted to a second site 12,505 feet above sea level called Diablo Ridge, about a mile west of Conejos Peak and about 16 air miles southeast of the ski area. They again placed explosives to mitigate the avalanche hazard, with no significant results, the report said.

The patrollers skied down the path adjacent to one that Sutton would ski the following day with very different consequences.

While this was going on, Sutton was back at Wolf Creek skiing with Albert and Connie Durand, a former professional ski instructor.

The next day he told them, “I have to do a pit,” a test of the snowpack in the backcountry. Connie Durand said she skied with her son’s girlfriend, also a member of the ski patrol, and his trained black Lab, Boca, that morning at Wolf Creek. They all planned to meet at the end of the day.

The avalanche forecast for March 4 was “considerable” above treeline and “moderate” near and below the treeline, the report said. It highlighted “persistent and deep persistent slab” avalanche problems.

These were caused by the weather over the previous months. From Christmas until the end of December, it had been exceptionally dry. The upper half of the snowpack turned into what experts described as “faceted snow grains,” which formed a weak layer that was buried by storms that began at the end of January and another system that dropped about 35 inches of snow near Wolf Creek Pass between Feb. 28 and March 2. Winds were high before and after the storm.

The group of four patrollers, including Sutton, flew by helicopter in groups of two to Diablo Ridge.

The first two men, Tanner Patty and Jonathan Reed, skied down first along the path taken the previous day by the March 3 patrol group and dug two pits to assess snow conditions. As they were putting on their skis, they triggered a collapse, the report said. They waited in a safe location to discuss their observations with Sutton and Tim Lemley, who were waiting on top. Patty and Reed then skied the avalanche path to the planned helicopter pickup zone.

While Lemley spotted from above, Sutton skied down to dig another snow pit.

It was “an accident waiting to happen,” Albert Durand said.

The handwritten report, collected from Sutton’s backpack after his death, showed he had dug down 175 centimeters. It was a fairly typical snow profile for that time of year, said Greene of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, who was at the accident site the next day. But “from a stability standpoint,” there were certain alarming findings indicating that if a crack started, it could continue, Greene said.

What one of the tests Sutton performed shows, he said, is that “if you do start an avalanche, it’s going to be a big one. That’s a dangerous snowpack.”

After finishing the pit, Sutton radioed Lemley that he would ski to his right to a safe spot on a ridge and contact him. Sensing the danger, he told Lemley to stay put, according to Albert Durand and Sutton’s older brother, Bjorn Sutton. Lemley told them he credits Sutton with saving his life. Lemley did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Sutton descended out of sight into some trees, but after just three turns, the avalanche released.

It was about 12:45 p.m. The avalanche center report said the slide was “destructive enough to bury a car or break trees.” It broke on a layer of faceted snow on a northwest-facing slope near the tree line 3 to 5 feet below the surface and ran through a confined gully. The crown was about 250 feet wide.

Lemley contacted the two other patrollers to tell them the avalanche had released. They attached climbing skins to their skis and set off to find Sutton. After several minutes, they were able to reach the ski area to summon additional resources, including the Flight for Life helicopter from Durango, Colo. Pitcher was among those who responded.

The three patrollers began a search and quickly confirmed Sutton’s location. They estimated he had been buried for about 30 minutes. Bjorn Sutton said his brother had an air bag with him, but he doesn’t think it was deployed.

By the time rescuers reached Sutton, he didn’t have a pulse, but there were no obvious signs of trauma. They began CPR.

Albert and Connie Durand were skiing on Alberta face near the Treasure Lift, waiting for their son, when they got a call from Bjorn Sutton saying there had been an accident. They were told to get to the ski patrol office as fast as they could because there had been an avalanche.

Colin Sutton was transported by rescue sled to the helicopter landing zone and then to Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango.

While they were driving down to Pagosa Springs, Colo., the Durands learned their son hadn’t survived.

Search for answers

In the weeks after the accident, Pitcher escorted investigators and family members to the site. And a number of friends visited as well. Bjorn Sutton, who has been to the site three times, said that in the spring, he found a ski pole, sunglasses and two skis he believes belonged to his brother, as well as discarded rescue equipment.

During his first visit, about 10 days after the accident, he snowmobiled in and skinned to the top, where he could see the site of the snow pit and the jarring path Colin had taken in his final minutes of life.

“He had a pretty rough ride through some heavy trees,” Bjorn Sutton said.

Many in the family blame Pitcher for sending members of the patrol into a situation fraught with such risk — and without written permission. “He needs to be held accountable,” Doug Sutton said.

Heywood, however, said he doesn’t believe the deaths of two patrollers since 2010 means that Wolf Creek is significantly more risky. Kay might not have died had he been following accepted practice. And in the case of Sutton, he said, “Mother Nature threw a curveball.”

Brennan said that “what’s clear from a general sense is that the slope conditions that day were unusually dangerous, permit or no permit. Irrespective of all the expertise and training the two patrol groups may have had, once that slab released from the ride, all available options for a skier in the chute fell to zero.”

Several people have been thinking about the relationship between their friend’s death and the push at Wolf Creek and many other ski areas to open up uncharted backcountry areas to skiers and snowboarders.

“Regardless of permits, I do wonder if they were pushing to develop the backcountry, even in dangerous conditions, to the peril of their patrolmen,” Mushen said.

“We’re always pushing the boundaries. Ultimately that’s what’s to blame here,” Byers said. “Our appetite is growing for novel experiences.”

And ski areas are catering to such demand, he said, because “it’s an economic driver and it makes sense.”

“Colin chose to be there,” Byers said. “He understood that boundary. If we were all happy with ski areas as they are, then people won’t die trying to make it safe for us. Our natural impulse is to find someone to blame. The reality is he died doing what he loved doing. But I wish he were 78.”

Although several people believe the Forest Service was aware that Pitcher was still conducting training and surveys outside the ski area boundary, Adam Mendonca, acting forest supervisor, said he did not know about these activities. The ski area only had permission to use explosives and helicopters for avalanche mitigation within the boundary, he stressed.

Mendonca confirmed that Pitcher, who was looking into helicopter skiing opportunities, had a permit in 2011, but “after that year, I don’t know why they didn’t come back and ask for another permit.”

It was up to Wolf Creek to request the permits, he said.

And it is impossible to patrol the nearly 2 million acres of the Rio Grande National Forest, he added. “We’re not standing out there with binoculars. We rely heavily on folks to tell us [what’s going on.]”

After Sutton’s death, the family planned a celebration of his life at the family farm in Colorado. They bought tacos for the 50 or 60 people they were expecting. But hundreds came — from Wisconsin, Alaska, Portland, Ore., California, Minnesota, Santa Fe and Aspen, Colo.

“He had such charisma,” Connie Durand said.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.