Authorities have released the names of the five men who were killed on Loveland Pass Saturday in the deadliest avalanche in 50 years.
Christopher Peters, 32, of Lakewood; Joseph Timlin, 32, of Gypsum; Ryan Novak, 33, from Boulder; Ian Lanphere, 36, of Crested Butte and Rick Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park were hiking up the northern slope of the Sheep Creek drainage, near but outside the boundaries of Loveland Ski Area when experts believe they hit a compression zone, triggering a massive avalanche above them.
The resulting slide buried one of the men 12 to 14 feet deep in concrete-like snow, according to rescuers.
"We had to literally move tons of snow to locate the individual," Summit County Rescue Group spokesman Charles Pitman said.
Rescuers got the call just after 2 p.m. Saturday and responded immediately, but accounts of the incident indicate it was more than an hour after the avalanche was triggered. All five victims were dead when they arrived at the scene. A sixth man was buried, but rescuer and Dillon resident Mike Bennet was able to dig him out.
Despite the risk of hang fire - smaller, subsequent slides - emergency responders were able to recover the bodies.
The victims were equipped with avalanche beacons and were reportedly riding in the area as part of a safety awareness event.
"They were doing everything right," Pitman said. "They had all the equipment."
An initial report indicates the slide was 4 feet deep and 500 feet wide, releasing near the top of the ridge and stepping down into old snow layers.
It was the second fatal avalanche in the Summit County area in as many days.
Another snowboarder was killed in a slide Thursday while riding a popular chute below Ptarmigan Hill, south of Vail Pass.
Rescuers say the two avalanches were similar: both occurred on north-facing aspects near treeline, and both were likely triggered from the side of the slope where the snow is thinner.
"As rescuers, what we've been dealing with lately are avalanches that are sort of like angry, sleeping dogs," said Dale Atkins, American Avalanche Association president and member of the Alpine Rescue Team, which responded to Saturday's slide. "They are unreactive for a long period, but with recent heavy snows and the deep weakness, somebody in the wrong place at the wrong time can bring a whole mountainside down."
Experts have been warning all winter of the danger posed by a weak base layer left over from mixed weather patterns early in the season. Recent storms and high winds have loaded that foundation with additional weight, creating the potential for more destructive slides.
"We have this persistent weak layer near the base of the snowpack and we've now built very large slabs of snow on top of it," Colorado Avalanche Information Center executive director Ethan Greene said. "So the potential for a large release is there."
The two slides bordering Summit County in the last four days brought the number of avalanche fatalities in Colorado this season to 11, almost doubling the 10-year average of six deaths.
Saturday's slide closed U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass for several hours in the late afternoon.
Ski patrollers and avalanche dogs from several local resorts assisted rescuers from Clear Creek and Summit counties at the scene.
The avalanche danger is rated considerable on north, east and southeastern aspects near and above treeline in the Vail and Summit County zone.
"It's April, (but) the snowpack looks a lot more like February right now," Greene said. "Even though we're late in the year, we have mid-winter conditions."
He said the avalanche danger is likely to spike again when the weather begins to warm up.
Updated avalanche forecasts and weather information are available online at avalanche.state.co.us.
The Denver Post contributed to the reporting of this story.