However, a number of skiers taking illegal runs in Bear Creek had a less than ideal skiing experience, and had to be rescued from nearly deadly accidents.
Reggae Rescue Starts Season of Bear Creek Rescues
A group of local skiers skiing the popular but illegal Regular Route ("Reggae") run in Bear Creek Basin late on the afternoon of January 7 learned first hand the ramifications of skiing out-of-bounds when one member of the party suffered a debilitating lower leg fracture. The accident required a lengthy rescue by members of the Telluride Ski Patrol, and a not-so-welcome greeting from members of the San Miguel County Sheriff's office upon his safe extraction from the area.
Dan Schrank ducked the rope on the east side of the Telluride Ski Area boundary with two other local skiers, all of whom are known to be experienced backcountry travelers (though none were reported to be equipped with sufficient rescue gear that day).
Soon after entering the out-of-bounds area, Schrank hit a stump or fallen tree hidden by the snow. The impact caused a "boot top" tibia-fibula fracture. Veteran Telluride ski patrollers Peter Inglis and Kevin Cahalane volunteered to assist in the rescue, and managed to ski Schrank out with a rescue toboggan.
Eric Berg, Operations Commander for Search and Rescue, reported that the outcome of the rescue was a relatively good one, considering the possibly fatal results this accident could have had.
"This guy maybe would have lived without ski patrol, but maybe not," he said, pointing out that ski patrol had no obligation to act and that, given the time of day and weather conditions, Search and Rescue would probably not have been able to extricate the victim from the Bear Creek backcountry until the following day.
Berg explained that for members of SAR to participate in a rescue, conditions must be determined safe for rescuers, and that if conditions are found to be otherwise, they may not be able or willing to proceed with a potentially dangerous rescue.
"A person with an injury in the backcountry, whether they're out there legally or illegally, should be prepared and sufficiently trained to self-rescue, because the bottom line is that we may not be able to help you," he said.
O'Neill Survives 2,000-Foot Fall in Nellie Bowl Avalanche
Brian O'Neill, longtime Telluride resident and an avid outdoorsman, sustained two broken vertebrae in his cervical spine after plunging nearly 2,000 feet in a slide that ripped through the closed Nellie Bowl in the Bear Creek backcountry on February 13.
O'Neill had been skiing with two friends when he triggered the avalanche, which was witnessed by two Telluride ski patrollers. A Helitrax helicopter working in the area was dispatched to the scene, and spotted O'Neill on the surface of the snow. Pilot Chuck McFarlyn flew Helitrax guides John Humphries and Brian "Speed" Miller along with veteran ski patroller Byron Curfman and avalanche dog Creek to O'Neill's location, where they loaded and transported him via helicopter to Telluride Town Park.
Members of San Miguel County Search and Rescue and personnel from the Telluride emergency medical services then transported O'Neill via ambulance to the Telluride Medical Center. He was later airlifted to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction and underwent surgery to repair the broken vertebrae, and has since made a full recovery.
Craig Sterbenz, snow safety director for the Telluride Ski Patrol, reported that the soft slab avalanche fractured a foot deep on average and up to two and one-half feet at the deepest sections. It ran approximately 1,800 feet vertical, all the way down through the Nellie Mine gully, and deposited 15 to 30 feet of debris. More than 20 inches of snow had fallen during the week leading up to the avalanche, significantly weakening the snow pack.
"He was lucky to be alive," Sterbenz said after the accident.
Season Ends With Dangerous Rescue in Contention
Scott Kennett, a well-known Telluride extreme skier and Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club coach, endured a grueling rescue after sustaining a tibia-fibula fracture on the illegal Contention run in Bear Creek just days before the ski area closed for the season.
When members of San Miguel County's Search and Rescue team were notified of the accident, which happened late in the afternoon on March 30, rescuers were unsure if they would be able attempt a rescue due to deteriorating weather conditions. A break in the clouds allowed ski patrollers Heidi Attenberger and Peter Inglis to locate Kennett, who had entered the closed area with a 16-year-old TSSC skier, and a helicopter was summoned to assist in the rescue. After being short-lined out of the area via helicopter, Kennett underwent surgery to repair his lower leg.
"People go out there…and they pull the blinds down. They don't think about the rescue people who have to come in there after them, and they don't think about their families, who we have to deal with it afterwards," said SAR Operations Commander Eric Berg following Kennett's rescue.
No rescues have taken place in Bear Creek yet this season, but conditions are ripe for an avalanche accident, according to Telluride Ski Patrol Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz.
"There have been some really close calls," Sterbenz said earlier this month. "We've already seen a few areas slide that don't usually see much avalanche activity, especially this time of year. The snowpack is extremely tender right now."
In November, three Telluride ski patrollers were caught in a slide while boot packing on Bald Mountain; all three were partially buried. A potentially deadly avalanche took another patroller for a ride on the Killer run in early December, while throughout the early season members of Telluride's ski patrol crew have initiated significant avalanches on the Spiral Stairs, Mammoth, Happy Thought, the out-of-bounds Gold Hill chutes, and more.