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The Inherent Dangers of Backcountry Skiing in Colorado’s Mountains

What can a fatal backcountry skiing accident on Jones Pass, on the west side of the Continental Divide, teach us about Colorado’s snowcat outfitters? And can these quintessential Centennial State adventures ever truly be safe?

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The avalanche that killed my friend, Hans Berg, on Jones Pass on the afternoon of March 7, 2019, was about 2,000 feet wide and ran from its start, beneath a cornice that collapsed, approximately 1,000 feet to its stopping point, across a snowcat road. The avalanche, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), spread both to the north and south of the spot where the school-bus-size chunk of cornice fell and triggered more breaks on a sheet of snow that sat on what avalanche professionals call a persistent weak layer (PWL). PWLs resist bonding to other layers of snow over time, and when disturbed they can fail, sometimes creating massive avalanches. PWLs are found in every region of Colorado, in part because of the state’s very dry snowpack, and are especially prevalent in the Jones Pass area, just west of Berthoud Pass. Skiing, snowmobiling, or even heading out on a casual snowshoe trek there is a risk.

Hans Berg
Hans Berg, an accomplished photographer and backcountry skier, was always ready for adventure. Photo courtesy of Scott Hefel

During the week that Hans died, the avalanche danger in the area was higher than normal. Between March 1 and 3, a storm buried the site the CAIC uses to measure snowfall on Jones Pass in 21 inches of snow. It came with strong westerly and southwesterly winds, which drifted new snow onto the east-facing side of the mountains, where cornices, like cantilevered curlicues, formed. It didn’t snow on March 4 or 5, but the wind continued to blow, adding more snow to the already heavy cornices.

Early on the morning of March 6, another powerful storm moved into Colorado, this one dumping 11 inches at the Jones Pass snow-measuring site and bringing with it consistent winds for the next 24 hours. By noon on March 7, a seven-day total of 34 inches of fresh snow sat atop a PWL that had formed in early February. Knowledge of PWLs does not preclude guiding. Hans and several of my other friends—all employees of the Powder Addiction Cat Skiing operation—had guided hundreds of customers each year, with skill levels ranging from intermediate to expert, in avalanche areas, categorized by complex terrain with well-defined avalanche paths. They used their training to reduce or eliminate avalanche exposure with careful route-finding.

Powder Addiction had, up until that day, a solid safety record. On March 7, around 1 p.m., Hans—who was Powder Addiction’s Pro Level 1 avalanche-trained staff photographer—was traversing beneath a run known as Shipwreck after snapping pictures of clients. The lead guide, Carter Spencer; an intern named Nolan Van Harte, who’d also been a ski patroller at Copper Mountain; and the clients had all skied across safely. As Hans started to traverse, the slope above him broke, the fracture spread, and a torrent of snow, churning uprooted trees, slammed into him, overtook him, and deposited him, 150 feet from where he had been, under two and a half feet of snow.

No one else was harmed, though one client had been partially buried and was quickly rescued. The guides moved swiftly to find and extract Hans. He was alive when they dug him out, but some say that hearing him speak, and then watching what came next, was more painful than if they’d found him dead. “He was fucking psyched to see me,” Spencer says. “He said, ‘I knew it. I knew you’d uncover me. I knew you’d save me.’ ” But the turbulence of the avalanche and the debris within it had shattered Hans’ femur and fractured his pelvis. Other injuries were causing internal bleeding. The Powder Addiction crew got him onto a rescue sled, down to the snowcat, and to an ambulance waiting at the trailhead in less than 45 minutes. A helicopter rescue was impossible because of the weather.

On the way to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Hans, who was 48, went into cardiac arrest multiple times. He had grave blunt force injuries, including flail chest, a fractured sternum, a myocardial contusion, and pulmonary contusions. When he arrived at the hospital, five doctors operated on him for five hours. They were not able to save him.

Depending on whom you talk to, the Point 12118 Avalanche that killed Hans occurred during a 100- to 300-year storm cycle across the state. The snow that week came in clouds that arrived from the Pacific Ocean and led to an approximately 20 percent increase of the snowpack in the Jones Pass region. The CAIC recorded 25 “very large to historic-size” avalanches in the area, including, on March 5, a naturally occurring one around three miles from the accident site and an explosives-triggered one seven miles from the site. As it does every day during the backcountry ski season, the CAIC issued reports identifying the danger in the snowpack. From March 1 to 6, conditions for the Front Range zone were declared either Considerable (Level 3 out of 5) or High (Level 4 out of 5).

Avalanche Danger Areas
The CAIC map of the avalanche danger for March 7, 2019. Photo courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

On March 7, the day Hans died, the conditions were deemed High. In its forecast for that day, the CAIC warned that “backcountry avalanche conditions are very dangerous. Avoid travel across or below steep slopes. Avalanches may run to the valley floors or farther than they have in years…. You are unlikely to survive a brush with one of these avalanches.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hans’ accident, however, all that mattered was that he’d been hurt. I stood shocked in my kitchen with my husband, Shawn (who was a Powder Addiction guide at the time), after hearing the news. Several hours later, Hans was pronounced dead. During the next 24 hours, local news outlets latched on to the story, and questions swirled: What happened in the mountains above U.S. 40? How could something so seemingly preventable have occurred? And why had the crew been guiding on a day when getting caught in a slide seemed likely?

Those questions, and others, would continue to be asked over the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, the guides and Hans’ family and friends grappled with his death. Powder Addiction’s owners faced criticism so intense that they worried for their safety. Shortly thereafter, they quietly closed shop.

The brief history of cat skiing in Colorado goes something like this: In 1968, Deep Powder Tours, now called Aspen Powder Tours, started operating trips on Richmond Hill just south of Aspen Mountain. In the 1970s, cat skiing in Crested Butte, now overseen by Eleven Experience, gained steam. In the 1980s and ’90s, Steamboat Powdercats, Monarch Cat Skiing, and Cooper Ridge (near Ski Cooper) popped up. And in the 2000s, Silverton Powder Cats, on Molas Pass, and Berthoud Powder Guides, near Winter Park, took root. (All still operate except for Berthoud Powder Guides.)

According to several unofficial historians, the first person to use a snowcat to take skiers into the Jones Pass region was a man named Bill Miller. Miller fired up the cat for his inaugural paid trip, as Mountain Fun, in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, Eric Tollund, a future Powder Addiction guide, booked a day in the backcountry with the outfit. Miller’s cat flew a pirate flag, and the guides wore all black. At the top of a bowl, a guide would say, “Rip it! We’ll meet you at the bottom,” Tollund recalls. “We trusted them. We put our lives in their hands.” Mountain Fun eventually fizzled, and in 2009, an investor named Chip Besse bought it and rebranded it as Powder Addiction.

One of Besse’s first moves was to hire Jamie Wolter, an accomplished guide, outdoor educator, avalanche education instructor, and snow safety coordinator at Winter Park Resort for the role of operations manager and lead guide each season from September through April. Wolter began building a team of guides with years of experience either on ski patrol, as patrollers and avalanche technicians with explosives-user permits, or as avalanche-trained, dedicated backcountry skiers. One of the primary benefits of having someone with Wolter’s experience and commitment on the team was that he could be out in the Jones Pass area virtually every day—guiding, testing the snow stability, and observing the snowpack and terrain. Both his expertise and the competence of his staff allowed Powder Addiction to operate without any major accidents between 2008 and 2013, when a volunteer on a ski break caught air, landed on a rock, and sustained internal injuries (he was ultimately OK).

In 2012, Besse decided to sell. That fall, two business partners from Denver bought Powder Addiction, and Jason Harper, a skier and snowboarder whose main income came from the construction industry, took over operations. One of the first things Harper did was tell Wolter that he would no longer pay him the $5,000 per month he’d been earning to do his job, according to Wolter. Harper wanted to be the owner-operator, Wolter says, and offered to pay Wolter a daily guiding rate, which he declined. “He wanted nothing to do with [Powder Addiction],” Harper says. “He was definitely done.” With Wolter’s departure, the first iteration of Powder Addiction was history.

In 2014, Powder Addiction’s first year under Harper’s ownership, there was no dedicated snow safety director. The one lead guide who remained after Harper took over quit halfway through the season. Several other, newer guides stayed on, and a new recruit named Nick Barlow—with three years of heli-guiding experience in Alaska—joined the operation.

Barlow was working toward his bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Metropolitan State University of Denver with the hope of eventually becoming a forecaster for CAIC. He says the outfitter he joined consisted of welcoming guides who were receptive to him sharing his experiences of guiding in Alaska. “I found a lot of opportunities to help improve the operation, specifically the guide-training program, which didn’t seem comprehensive. In Haines [the region in Alaska where he had guided], we’d get paid to train for three weeks. With Powder Addiction, it was a couple of days,” he says, adding that he was not paid even though the training was mandatory.

Barlow introduced the idea of a formal snow safety program with snow safety days, on which employees could take a paid day to dig pits (a method of assessing the danger in snow layers) and collect data. He says Harper “was into the safety aspect, but he had tight pockets.” Harper, for his part, says because the area skiers covered was so small, and only up to 12 people went out on each trip, two people were enough to collect data. So Barlow and Harper struck a bargain: As the newly appointed snow safety director, in 2015, Barlow could call for a “study day” with one other person, Barlow says, if they hadn’t run trips recently or when he had a question about a specific layer in the snowpack or if the guides were thinking of moving into a new zone. And he introduced hybrid days, on which a guide would ski with customers in the morning and break off throughout the day to dig pits.

He also drafted a 17-page Snow Safety Program that drew on protocols he’d learned in Alaska and “outlined what we were already doing, but in more detail,” he says. Multiple Powder Addiction guides say Barlow’s forecasting improved the safety of the operation. By 2016, when Barlow left to work at the CAIC, Tollund had worked at Powder Addiction for six years, and another guide named John Gibbons had worked there for around two years. Both had focused on attaining avalanche forecaster status by working toward the highest level of avalanche education one could get at the time, Level 3, through the American Avalanche Institute.

Tollund and Gibbons both have full-time careers—Tollund is a firefighter in the Denver metro area, and Gibbons is a regional emergency coordinator, based in Denver, for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That meant each could spend only about 20 hours per week in the field making observations. “Collaboratively, we made one decent full-time employee,” Gibbons says. “But given the size of our terrain, it wasn’t feasible to have one snow safety director, so we extended our capability to our staff.” Every day, he and Tollund would ask whichever guides were working to write reports documenting what they observed, experienced, and tested.

Tollund and Gibbons used this model and started making forecasts for a certain time period—say, every three to four days—something they’d learned from their Level 3 instructor and which both Tollund and Harper say is suitable if the weather is stable. If it’s variable, though, like in the spring when it can go from warm, wet weather back to cold, dry conditions again: “Boom,” Tollund says. “We’re back out there doing a new forecast.”

Using both a basic weather forecast and the CAIC forecast for the week that the historic storms hit Colorado in 2019, Tollund created a Jones Pass–specific report on March 3. It rated the avalanche danger as “high,” warned guides to stay off runs with an elevated slope angle, and instructed them to avoid certain runs altogether, including Shipwreck. The March 3 forecast also applied to March 4. On March 5, Tollund’s new forecast warned guides of “considerable” to “high” avalanche danger above the treeline; of “moderate” danger below it; and it rendered “closed” all “runs as well as any traverses that travel under/across exposed start zones.”

Tollund takes responsibility for writing the forecast. “The one thing I wish I could change,” he says, “is that I wish I’d have labeled the conditions ‘extreme.’ But I had never seen extreme before in our area. At that point, I didn’t even know how to conceptualize extreme. And if you talk to Dale Atkins [a highly respected, longtime forecaster for the CAIC, who is now retired], he’ll say, ‘You can’t wrap your head around something until you experience it.’ ”

At around 9:30 a.m. on March 7, Hans, Spencer, Van Harte, and Ehren Samuelson, who was driving the cat, headed into the backcountry. According to the CAIC’s accident report, the guides communicated the risks to their group of highly skilled clients. “They knew the danger, and they wanted to go,” Spencer says. The guides skied with their clients in a way Spencer says was manageable even on that day. They stayed on low-angle slopes, “wiggle-butting” through the deep powder, and they did safety checks before they entered slightly steeper terrain. Nothing slid. Sometime after noon, they skied a run called the Funnel, and the snow was sublime. Then Hans, tempting fate, or perhaps failing to remember that it sat beneath a headwall steep enough to slide, suggested the group ski Bootpack, a run beneath Shipwreck, Spencer says. They all agreed. The guides and Hans had succumbed to what Dale Atkins calls “familiarity.”

Friends say Hans was always ready to ski, which is where he got his nickname, the Sultan of Stoke. “For him, being in the wilderness was his only reality; the rest of life wasn’t real. The wilderness made him feel alive,” says his partner, Susan Owen. On March 7, he made a decision that proved fatal. Even so, many months after the avalanche, I wondered if his death could be traced to fissures in the cat-skiing industry.

Hans Berg
Hans Berg. Photo courtesy of Scott Hefe

Cat-ski operations on U.S. Forest Service lands are required to obtain a Special Use Permit. To do so, outfitters must prove to the Forest Service that they have the requisite training and experience, though there are no specific medical or avalanche training requirements. A permit administrator then visits the operation, but the knowledge of administrators varies widely, according to Eleven Experience lead guide Billy Rankin. “It’s kind of classic in Gunnison National Forest: Some auditors are like, ‘Cat skiing! This is awesome!’ and others are asking the right questions. So levels of understanding do vary depending on the district.”

Around 2012, cat-ski operation employees, sensing the need for more oversight, decided to form Cat Ski US, an independent trade organization. Some of the founding members included personnel from Powder Addiction (Jamie Wolter), Monarch Cat Skiing, Steamboat Powdercats, and Eleven Experience. They came together, says Tony Clapp, an attorney who advises outdoor-recreation providers, after recognizing that each business operated differently and wanting to create formal industry standards through the sharing of ideas.

They identified minimum mandatory practices to make their operations safe—things like ensuring all guides had a certain level of both avalanche and medical training, holding guide and client safety meetings, and making sure all clients wore avalanche rescue beacons while skiing. They also identified levels of training needed for different positions, including snow safety director, lead guide, and tail guide. And they created an open forum for members to discuss things like how to deal with the Forest Service, how to handle personnel issues, how much to pay guides, and new developments and trends in snow safety.

Then they took it a step further and decided to send board members to do safety and operational reviews. There would be two reviewers, Clapp says; one would go with the guests, and one would “be with staff, in the back of the house.” They’d do spot audits of guide packs, scrutinize the snowcat (including its safety and rescue gear), and check to see that all guide certifications were up to date. “Cat ops had to meet or exceed the standards in order to be a member,” Clapp says. “If they were deficient, they would be notified of the deficiency and have to cure it in order to maintain membership.”

Membership, however, was—and continues to be—optional. What’s more, many operations haven’t joined. “A lot are kind of mom-and-pop [outfitters], and membership costs $200 to $300 a year, and maybe they’re afraid of not operating to the standards,” Rankin says. Yet he believes most cat ops follow unofficial industry standards: “People are doing the right things not because someone is checking on them, but for the pride of being solid,” Rankin says. “The people in this business and the avy industry have such high standards already.” Rankin adds, however, that more oversight is always a good thing and that it would help the industry as a whole.

Still, practices vary between cat operations. Rankin says outfitters have different levels of risk tolerance when it comes to skiing avalanche terrain on any given day. “Risk tolerance,” he says, “happens across a spectrum.”

“Anyone who goes out and seeks the steep and deep is dealing with uncertainty.”

In addition, making future guides complete the American Mountain Guides Association’s (AMGA) several-year Ski Guide certification would be good, Rankin says. Even better would be a program specifically focused on cat-ski guiding. “We encourage AMGA training, and we look for AMGA-certified guides, but in those courses, you’re getting maybe one ski run a day, while in mechanized ski guiding you’re managing five, eight, 10 runs a day. You’re moving people downhill all day long. You’re assessing the risk, the avy hazard, and there’s a lot to that. There’s no course for that right now, but we’ve met with Heli Ski US [an organization similar to Cat Ski US] to try and figure it out.”

In April 2019, a month after Hans’ death, Ehren Samuelson bought the business that had been Powder Addiction and renamed it Jones Pass Guides. Samuelson had his own capital to invest and knew something about both outfitting and cat-ski guiding. He’d worked for Powder Addiction up to the moment Hans died: He was driving the cat that day and helped search for his friend.

Tollund was also on Jones Pass on March 7; he was preparing for a backcountry workshop he leads that focuses on the human element of decision-making while traveling in avalanche terrain. He and two other instructors had decided the skiing was too dicey that day but were skinning and conducting snow observations in the valley adjacent to where Hans had been. Tollund “felt something, a sixth sense,” and looked up to see one arm of the avalanche tearing down the mountain. He shouted “Avalanche! Avalanche!” Upon finally seeing Hans after he’d been dug out from the snowpack, he says, “I knew something was terribly wrong.”

When I spoke with Samuelson this past year and asked why he wanted to continue a cat-ski operation in a place where his friend had died, he said, “As an individual who lives for experiences in nature, I know there are risks, but it’s better than being afraid and sitting on my couch wishing I was doing what I see all the influencers and other adventurers do. Hans’ death was tragic, but as an industry in adventure and exploration, if we didn’t continue doing the pursuits that drive us, frankly we would see a significant loss of advancement, development, new ideas, innovations, and technology, as well as an increase in depression, possible suicide, and a plethora of other problems. I bought Powder Addiction because I love the outdoors, I love Hans, and I would rather make a living doing what I love than working for someone who doesn’t have that vision.”

Samuelson is a fifth-generation Grand County resident who grew up in a family of hunting outfitters, and he knows the outfitting business intimately. He has skied and snowboarded most of his life, logging 60 to 80 days a year on average at Winter Park and dozens in the backcountry. And he worked as a cat-ski guide before becoming a cat-ski operator. He might not have as much experience as Atkins or Wolter or Tollund, but he has deep knowledge of the risks associated with cat skiing and the uncertainty of avalanches.

The Jones Pass Guides team is essentially the same crew that worked for Powder Addiction. Samuelson also hired Loveland Ski Resort’s former snow safety director Mike Wallace, based on Tollund’s recommendation. “Both Ehren and [operations director] Scott Hefel were 100 percent on board, knowing that we needed someone from outside to come look us over,” Tollund says. “We knew we couldn’t keep operating like we were.” Every forecast now is the result of a joint effort between Tollund, Gibbons, and Wallace.

Even with the addition of Wallace, could the reinvention of Powder Addiction as Jones Pass Guides be safer than it had been? I asked Atkins, who reiterated something he and others had told me before: Cat skiing takes place in avalanche country, and any time you’re among avalanches, it’s impossible to ensure safety. He added that the way we deal with risk is through knowledge, assessments, and evaluations. The Jones Pass team is made up of “outstanding professionals,” Atkins says. “Their hearts are so into not just providing a great product but doing it safely. They’re also dealing with uncertainty. And every single cat operation, every ski area, every backcountry skier, anyone who goes out and seeks the steep and deep is dealing with uncertainty.”

To this day, all of us who knew Hans miss him profoundly. But, Tollund says, “as tragic as it is, Hans taught us something in his death.” He adds that now he takes even more care than he did before. “I can be out in the mountains and wanting to ski something,” he says. “I’ll check myself, take a pause, and then ask: Is what I see safe enough to ski?

The Year That Changed Everything

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