CORRECTION: Due to incorrect information from the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office, the names of Ryan Novak and Ian Lamphere were misspelled in this article initially. Also, Novak was a Crested Butte resident, although he previously had lived in Boulder.
LOVELAND PASS —The five men killed Saturday in Colorado’s deadliest avalanche in 50 years were participants in a backcountry snowboarder event called the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering. Four of the five were expert snowboarders, and one was an expert skier.
They were representatives and founders of snow-sport companies, guides, avalanche experts and veteran backcountry travelers, gathering in the normally safer spring season to celebrate backcountry snowboarding, raise money for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and test the newest gear.
The five killed in the avalanche were:
• Chris Peters, 32, of Lakewood.
• Joe Timlin, a 32-year-old sales representative with Jones Snowboards from Gypsum and an organizer of the backcountry gathering.
• Ryan Novak, 33, of Crested Butte.
• Ian Lamphere, a 36-year-old skier from Crested Butte with an infant and a fiancée. Lamphere founded the company Gecko Skins, which makes innovative climbing skins.
• Rick Gaukel, a 33-year-old American Mountain Guides Association-certified climbing guide from Estes Park with extensive avalanche education.
The sole survivor of the avalanche, Jerome Boulay, a sales representative with Silverton’s Venture Snowboards, was dug free by rescuer Mike Bennett, a Dillon resident.
Bennett spent the day riding on the south-facing Dry Gulch area across from the pass. He said organizers were “super apprehensive about safety.”
“Everything was about safety,” Bennett said. “Our whole goal was about being safe. The goal for us was just getting together to talk about safety and try some new gear.”
Bennett was in the Loveland Valley parking lot, hanging with fellow backcountry snowboarders, when Colorado Department of Transportation officials informed the group of a big avalanche in the Sheep Creek drainage just northeast of the Loveland Pass summit.
Bennett and Dan Pedrow rushed up the pass and prepared their gear for a search. The avalanche was only a couple hundred yards from a turnout on Highway 6.
Bennett said Pedrow was already digging frantically, uncovering what would be a body, when he arrived around 2 p.m. at the middle section of the massive avalanche that released several hundred feet up the slope.
Bennett said he suspected his friends were buried in the debris and began searching with his avalanche beacon and picked up a signal. Two other backcountry travelers skinned up and began helping with the search.
He came across a snowboarder, with only one arm and his head above the icy chunks.
“I didn’t hear him yelling. I came around a corner and saw him and heard him at the same time,” Bennett said.
Bennett started digging and partially freed the sole survivor, who was later identified as Boulay.
“I said, ‘Well, you’re breathing and I think you’re OK right now, so I’m going to start digging for these other two guys,’ ” Bennett said.
Boulay said he had been buried for an hour. He told Bennett three others were buried further down the slope and two were nearby.
“Still, I was hoping,” Bennett said. “Some of them had Avalungs. Another had a Float pack. We were hoping someone was still alive.”
After arduous digging through concrete-like snow, Bennett found his friend Timlin and Gaukel, both tangled in timber about 2 feet below the surface. They were not breathing and had no pulse.
“They were wrapped around each other, below a patch of trees,” Bennett said. “The two guys were right there next to (Boulay). He could almost touch them.”
Bennett stayed and assisted rescuers from the Loveland ski area, Alpine Rescue Team and Clear Creek Search and Rescue. The last body was pulled from the snow at 5:30 p.m. That man was buried 15 feet deep, Bennett said.
On Friday night, there had been a party and raffle with more than 50 gathering attendees at the Dillon Dam Brewery.
The backcountry event was not affiliated with Loveland Ski Area, although the group was using the parking lot of the closed Loveland Valley area.
The Friday event raised $1,700 for the avalanche center.
Summit County avalanche forecaster Scott Toepfer spoke at the party.
Toepfer shared the recent avalanche forecast for the Summit County and Vail area, warning of “deep persistent slabs and fresh wind slabs” on the north, east and southeast aspects near and above tree line.
Toepfer said a snowboarder had been killed Thursday on a north-northeast-facing slope near Vail Pass in an avalanche that triggered near tree line.
A few days earlier, as heavy snow fell and high winds loaded slopes, avalanches in the Straight Creek drainage on the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel had ripped to the ground on the same weak layer of rotten snow near the ground.
“One thing that we always try to find are patterns,” Toepfer said as he geared up early Sunday to go investigate the massive slide. “Well, we are seeing one lately: near tree line, between 11,800 (feet) and 12,200 (feet) on that north-northeast aspect.”
All five men killed in the avalanche were wearing their equipment and all were carrying essential avalanche rescue gear.
Four were wearing splitboards — snowboards that split into wide skis that are used with climbing skins to ascend slopes — and one, Lamphere, was wearing skis with his skins also attached.
Avalanche investigators Saturday and Sunday said the group appeared to be well prepared and aware of avalanche danger.