GRAND COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — A group of backcountry snowmobilers in the middle of an advanced class for recreational snowmobiling rode up on a fresh avalanche Saturday, that ended up being deadly.
“I don’t think a lot went through our minds other than we need to get down there and start searching for these victims,” Sam Conger, a student in the class along with his two sons, said.
The class of nine students was being taught by instructor Mike Duffy and another teacher. Duffy runs Avalanche1 and is an avalanche instructor.
“As soon as we got to the edge, we realized there was a guy and his sled down there,” Conger said.
Duffy explained the group had ridden near the east face of Mount Epworth where the deadly avalanche happened just a few hours prior. This area is about six miles east of Winter Park on Pumphouse Lake.
“We saw the avalanche and they radioed right away that there was a snowmobile in the debris,” Duffy said.
Since this large avalanche happened right on the lake, he said it added additional challenges to the recovery.
“The weight of the avalanche coming down drops the ice level and cracks the ice around the perimeter, then the water starts seeping into the snowpack. So, they had to get into the water to get the person,” Duffy said.
At points, the water was thigh deep and it started to become a worry during the recovery, especially considering the dark and windy conditions at 11,000 feet in elevation.
“They didn’t hesitate to get in the water. They wanted to save a life,” Duffy said.
Conger said they had to change their personal beacons into search mode. They were able to find the first victim, who had a beacon on, within a minute. They began shoveling to get him out.
“It took us about seven minutes to get the victim with beacon out of the pond,” Conger said. “It was a pretty exhausting seven minutes for everyone trying to free this man.”
While that was happening others with the group were using their probe poles to try and find the second victim, who wasn’t wearing a beacon.
“The avalanche debris was so deep our probes couldn’t reach the ground at some spots,” Cameron Conger, Sam’s son, said.
Grand County Search and Rescue recovered one of the victims Saturday night and the other victim Sunday. Both victims were identified to FOX31 and Channel 2 by family and the Grand County Coroner’s office.
“To come across it right then and there and react right away it takes a toll on some people,” Duffy said.
Both the Congers and Duffy thanked their training for reacting the way they did and said it serves as a reminder for how important that is before heading out to the backcountry.