Avalanche Rescue: Airbag deployed as skier radios for help on Berthoud Pass

On Sunday January 29, 2017, Dustin Opheim was caught in an avalanche near Berthoud Pass on the southeast aspect of Russell. The avalanche incident was reported to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center – Dustin was ‘ Skier One’ in the CAIC report, and the only person caught in the avalanche. Dustin recounts his avalanche rescue experience in which he deployed BCA Float avalanche airbag and communicated to his group via his BC Link radios.


By Dustin Opheim

Snow + Weather Conditions:
It was a cloudy day with mild temperatures. The winds were calm while we ascended up the West Side of Berthoud Pass, Colorado. As we traversed over the saddle toward Russell, the wind became relatively strong out of the north. Avalanche conditions were rated as moderate, with a wind slab problem on pretty much all aspects but NNW – NNE. Local to the site of the slide, the snow was hard packed and wind blown. It was a hard wind slab on the aspect that broke.

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Backcountry Gear:
I was using my BCA Float 27 Tech avalanche airbag, which I deployed, had my BCA Tracker3 avalanche beacon on, and was fully geared up carrying my BCA shovel and probe, and using my BCA Scepter poles.

The Group + Time of Day:
I was skiing with 2 friends, Dan and Rodney. I met both of them in our AIARE level 1 avalanche safety course in December 2015. Approximate time of the slide was noon.

Avalanche Incident – the Full Story:
On Sunday, January 29th, 2017, Dan, Rodney, and I met at the Berthoud Pass (Colorado) parking lot to go out for a few laps. We first climbed and skied the Hells Half Acre area on the east side of Berthoud Pass.

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Next, we ascended the West Side out toward Russell. Our intention was to ski the pump house area and make our way toward Stanley’s. While on the saddle between West Side and Russell, we saw an area on the east side of Russell that looked like it might have some good snow to ski.

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We traveled to Russell and climbed up the northeast face. The snow was very hard packed from the wind scouring it. When we reached the ridgeline that would allow us to drop into the east aspect, we decided that it was not safe to ski – it was too wind loaded. We decided to turn around. While turning around on the hard snow surface, my ski popped off and slid over the ridgeline and fell onto the east aspect, sticking in the snow a little below the area we had just decided not to ski.

We descended along the ridgeline, above the area we identified as high avalanche danger. At the bottom of the ridge, I stuck my other ski into the snow. In an effort to retrieve the lost ski, I descended and traversed along the east face on a lower grade than what we thought was dangerous. When I was about halfway across toward my lost ski, the hard slab broke about 30 feet above me. As I began to accelerate down the slope within the path of the avalanche, it knocked me to the ground.

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After I began sliding on the ground with the avalanche slab cracking all around me, I pulled the ripcord trigger on my BCA float bag. Luckily, I came to a stop after roughly 30 feet and wasn’t buried in the snow at all. Immediately, I began talking to Dan and Rodney using our BC Link radios. They were still on the ridgeline and in safe terrain. No one was injured.

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After the slide:
Knowing there was still potential hang fire above me, I began to descend through the slide path and looking for my ski. I wasn’t able to find it because it was buried in the avalanche debris. We all determined it was not safe to grab my other ski because it was over the ridgeline and there was a large crack that stemmed from the crown between it and them.

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Dustin-Opheim-3-383x505My friends then traversed to a different aspect and rode down to the bottom of the debris where they met me. They rode down the road along a skin track and I boot packed along the same route. Unfortunately I lost my skis and BCA scepter poles in the debris. The skis and poles remain on the mountain and can hopefully be retrieved later in the season when the snowpack turns isothermal, or during the spring thaw.

Lesson learned:
Everyone walked away with no injury, but a lesson learned: if a slope is too dangerous to ski, it’s also too dangerous to retrieve gear from.

Thank you BCA for all you do for the outdoors industry! Your great backcountry equipment kept me safe in an unfortunate situation.

(Note: Dustin went back a couple days ago, and found one of his missing skis!)


CAIC Avalanche Incident Summary

Party of 3 skiers ascended old ski lift line west of Berthoud Pass, and continued up the east ridge of Mt Russell. They did not like the looks of the east face and decided to turn around, at which point the first skier in the group lost a ski, which slid down slopes into the east/southeast-facing terrain of Russell; the very terrain they we’re trying to avoid. Skier one slid down the ridge to a point where he could see where the renegade ski had ended up. He left his other ski planted in the snow on the ridge, and began to descend on foot to retrieve his lost ski. Towards the bottom of the slope, the person on foot triggered a Wind Slab avalanche that broke approximately 30 ft above him. He was swept up in the debris, deployed his airbag, and was swept downhill around 30 ft. Fortunately, he was not buried in the avalanche debris, and came to rest uninjured on the surface. He lost a ski in the debris.