Three backcountry skiers killed in an avalanche were recovered by helicopter Thursday afternoon near Silverton, ending a harrowing and emotional week for search and rescue crews that began shortly after the slide Monday.
San Juan County’s Office of Emergency Management announced late Thursday that Seth Bossung, 52, Andy Jessen, 40, and Adam Palmer, 49 – all Eagle County residents – died in the avalanche.
The trio were part of a group of seven backcountry skiers who went out to an area known as “The Nose” on Monday, near Ophir Pass, between the towns of Silverton and Ophir.
Four skiers in the group were caught in the avalanche. The other members of the group were able to extract one of the skiers, who suffered minor injuries. The three other skiers, however, remained missing.
A search and rescue mission began around 5:20 p.m. Monday and lasted late into the night. Efforts resumed Tuesday morning, but avalanche danger posed too great a risk to search and rescue crews, and the mission was called off Tuesday afternoon.
Avalanche danger was so high a Telluride Helitrax crew was in the area intentionally setting off slides to mitigate the danger. At one point, a natural avalanche trapped emergency responders, who abandoned their snowmobiles and trekked out on foot.
Despite the challenges Tuesday, the buried skiers were located through their beacons. On Wednesday, rescue teams started again to dig out the skiers who were buried under 20 feet of snow, requiring the use of chainsaws and other mechanized equipment.
By the end of the day Wednesday, all three skiers were excavated and ready for transport by helicopter, but because of the time of day, the helicopter mission was put off until Thursday.
Around 5 p.m. Thursday, the skiers were removed from the area and transported to a medical examiner’s office in Durango, where they were positively identified by the San Juan County coroner as the Eagle County residents.
“San Juan County would like to extend their condolences to the Bossung, Jessen and Palmer families, friends and the Eagle County community,” the county said in a statement. “As a small, rural alpine community ourselves, we understand the grave loss of community stakeholders like these three gentlemen.”
Eagle County officials had released the skiers’ names Wednesday as the community there mourned the loss of “three friends and leaders.”
A joint letter from Eagle County and the town of Eagle said, “The families are surrounded by loved ones, and we are asking everyone to respect their wishes as to when and how they wish to communicate with others.”
“Our hearts are heavy with the loss of these three men,” the joint letter said. “Their contributions through their work in local government and local businesses, as well as their personal passions and their impact on the friends and family members they leave behind, have helped shape the community in ways that will be forever lasting.”
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said Palmer was the county’s sustainable community director, and Bossung worked in the department. Jessen was the owner of the local Bonfire Brewery, Shroll said.
Both Jessen and Palmer served on the Eagle Town Council.
“Every single one of us,” the joint letter continued, “in both of our organizations has learned by their examples, and we are grateful to be able to call them colleagues.”
A more detailed report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center about the circumstances that led up to the avalanche is expected in the coming days.
What is known is the slide happened at The Nose near Ophir Pass, at an elevation of about 11,500 feet on a northeast-facing slope.
CAIC Executive Director Ethan Greene said in a previous interview The Nose is regarded as a steep, exposed slope with high risk of avalanches, but that the group, according to an investigation, was off to the side on lower-angle terrain.
“It’s not as aggressive of a line (as The Nose), but it’s still open terrain near tree line,” he said.
Avalanche danger remains high throughout Colorado. On Thursday, another backcountry skier died in an avalanche just outside Vail Mountain’s boundaries.
— to durangoherald.com