Colorado authorities have identified the victims of a backcountry avalanche on Saturday as five experienced snowboarders and skiers who were participating in a community event promoting backcountry safety and gear.
The Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering's organizer, Joe Timlin, who worked as the Rocky Mountain sales manager for various snowboard brands, was among the deceased, according to the Clear Creek County Coroner's office.
"I lost a very dear friend today," said Adam Schmidt, editor of Snowboard Colorado Magazine, one of the event's sponsors. "I helped Joe put this community event together. Everybody in the snowboard community here knew him, and he was an awesome guy. Our hearts go out to the families of those that were lost at Loveland Pass. We are all very saddened by the news we received of this tragedy ... The avalanche triggered above them and pretty much just buried all of them."
Clear Creek County Sheriff Don Krueger identified the other victims, all from Colorado, as: Christopher Peters, 32, of Lakewood; Ryan Novack, 33, of Boulder; Ian Lanphere, 36, of Crested Butte, and Rick Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park. A sixth rider, Jerome Boulay, sales manager for Silverton, Colo.-based Venture Snowboards, was partially buried and survived the slide. All six were reportedly expert riders and were equipped with proper backcountry gear, including avalanche beacons.The Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the Loveland Pass avalanche was about 500 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
The Colorado Department of Transportation closed a highway as many skiers were headed home from nearby Arapahoe Basin ski resort.
Timlin, 32, was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Minnesota, but moved to Colorado and took up snowboarding in 1996. He lived in Gypsum, near Vail.
"Snowboarding was not just an activity for weekends, it became my lifestyle and more literally, my life," he told Shannon Johnson, editor of Shayboarder.com, in a July 2012 profile interview on the site.
Lanphere, a skier, was the co-founder of both Backcountry TV and the Stowe Mountain Film Festival, and was trained as a heli-ski guide with Alaska Heliskiing in Haines, Alaska. He was co-owner of Gecko Climbing Skins, maker of skins for backcountry skis and splitboards, and sponsored riders including snowboarders Jeremy Jones and Forrest Shearer and skiers Scot Schmidt and Eric Hjorleifson. He was a "constant proponent of avalanche awareness and backcountry safety," according to his bio at GeckoClimbingSkins.com.
Gaukel was an American Mountain Guides Association-certified instructor and Wilderness First Responder. "[Gaukel was] one of the most educated snowboard backcountry guides in the world. Period," said Kurt Olesek, an Oakley sales rep and longtime Colorado snowboarder who attended Saturday's event but went touring with a different group. "Only a couple of other people have tested through these different levels to get where he was at."
The massive slide was Colorado's deadliest avalanche since 1962, according to the CAIC, and Saturday's fatalities bring the state's avalanche death toll for the 2012-2013 season to 11, following a separate snowboarder fatality on Thursday on Vail Pass.
Fifty-five miles west of Denver, Loveland Pass, at 11,990 feet, is popular among backcountry skiers and snowboarders from the Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs areas. The pass is also heavily traveled by visitors to nearby Arapahoe Basin and Keystone ski resorts. Hitchhikers at the bottom of the pass, seeking a ride back up, are a common sight for commuters.
Heavy spring snow pounded the area recently, with nearby Loveland Ski Area reporting 41 inches of new snow in the week prior to the slide.
"We've had a persistent weak layer that's plagued us off and on since January," CAIC avalanche forecaster Spencer Logan told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Toward the beginning of the month it went quiet and wasn't a serious issue, but this last round of storms has loaded the snow pack back to the point where we're seeing avalanches just break on this weak layer down near the ground."
The avalanche risk in the area on Saturday was ranked as "Considerable" (a rating of three out of five on a scale that goes up to "High," and "Extreme"). A flier promoting the gathering in advance stated, "This is not a guided event. Bring your stoke and don't forget to bring your brain."
The Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering was planned to promote backcountry safety as a fundraiser in partnership with the non-profit Friends of the CAIC.
"We're dealing with dangerous conditions in the backcountry," CAIC's Logan said. "We're expecting very large avalanches, but they're pretty hard to trigger: you have to be unlucky enough to find the right spot, and they may not give you any indication they're going to avalanche until the entire slope breaks out. We are still dealing with a very winter-like snow pack in Colorado. The calendar says spring, the snow surface feels like it's springtime, but our weak layers are still very cold, very winter-like, and need to be approached with that in mind."
Never Summer Snowboards sales representative Mike Gagliardi, a friend and colleague of Timlin's, posted the following message on Facebook early Sunday morning: "I cried, and mourned a friend and good person and his compatriots. Love to all who we lost, those who were with them who had to work thru this, and the families who lost good people."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.