Two Durango backcountry skiers who died in an avalanche this past weekend were experienced and intimately familiar with the terrain, but rare and dangerous snowpack conditions presented risks not seen in years.
According to a preliminary report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, two backcountry skiers on Saturday planned to ski in an area known as Battleship, a popular backcountry skiing area northwest of Silverton, and just south of Ophir Pass.
The pair – identified as Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, 51, and Albert Perry, 55 – reportedly went up to the mountains with a larger group of friends, and separated into smaller groups to go skiing.
But Paffendorf and Perry were reported overdue by their friends on Saturday night, setting off an extensive search and rescue mission around 8 p.m.
In the dark, crews in a Flight for Life helicopter could see a large avalanche and ski tracks on the northwest side of Ophir Pass, and the pair’s friends reportedly located the bodies of Paffendorf and Perry around 11 p.m.
Because of the late night hour, and the dangers that posed to rescue crews, the recovery mission was put off until the morning. The effort started 8 a.m. Sunday, with the rescue team reaching the site around noon.
It appears the skiers were experienced outdoorsmen, at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Paffendorf, a reportedly experienced and avid backcountry skier, was an anesthesiologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center for the past eight years.
“This loss is deeply felt by every caregiver in our hospitals,” said Mercy spokeswoman Lindsay Radford. “Dr. Paffendorf was known for the genuine and meaningful relationships he built with so many of his colleagues and patients during his career in Durango.”
Radford said Perry also had ties with Mercy: his wife, Angie, is a medical surgical nurse who for the past nine months has cared for patients on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our sympathies go out to the family, friends and loved ones, and all the caregivers who are grieving this painful loss,” Radford said.
Gina Piccoli, a broker at Coldwell Banker Heritage House Realtors in Durango, said Perry worked as real-estate broker at the office for nearly four years. His biography on the company’s website says he moved to Southwest Colorado in 1993.
Piccoli called Perry the “ultimate outdoorsman” who would regularly go on epic climbing and skiing trips. Recently, he traveled to Italy to climb the Alps, she said.
“He was not just a weekend warrior,” Piccoli said. “He had just the most amazing love of the outdoors.”
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said Paffendorf was known among the backcountry skiing community as a knowledgeable and experienced skier.
Greene said the investigation into the avalanche is pending, so he declined to get into the specifics on Monday morning. He said a final report should be released this week.
But Greene said that all three people who died backcountry skiing in Colorado this weekend (the other fatality happening near Crested Butte) were all males in their 50s who had a significant amount of experience in the mountains.
“It appears, at this point, in all three (fatalities), the people were mature, and quite experienced, and probably in terrain they were pretty familiar with,” Greene said.
The issue, Greene said, seems to be that snowpack conditions were in such a bad, unstable state, likely not seen since 2012. Although not unprecedented, he said the snowpack conditions are worse than what many people have experienced.
All of Colorado’s backcountry terrain is listed in “considerable” avalanche danger, which means it’s easy to trigger a slide.
In the last week, the CAIC has received reports of nearly 400 avalanches, with people triggering more than 100 avalanches. Since Friday, nine people have been caught in avalanches.
In the CAIC’s report for the south San Juan Mountains for Monday, the center wrote: “If there was a time to tread carefully in avalanche terrain, this is it. It seems a little like Russian Roulette at the moment, with a few folks traveling in high consequence terrain and not triggering avalanches, where others aren’t so lucky.”
The unstable snowpack is a result of early season snow in October and dry weather for weeks in November, causing the snowpack to become weak. Then, additional snow on top of that weak layer causes avalanches.
“How weak the snowpack gets depends on how the fall unfolds,” Greene said. “This particular year, the underlying snowpack is really weak.”
Greene said investigators will try to piece together the circumstances of Paffendorf and Perry’s death and try to track down other skiers in the area who may have seen the pair. But ultimately, there were no direct witnesses.
“Some stuff we won’t know ever,” he said.