Seven persons sleeping in their beds were swept to a frigid doom in a predawn avalanche at Twin Lakes, Colorado, on January 21, 1962. Two persons and a spotted puppy miraculously survived.
The avalanche raced down Gordon Gulch on 12,676-foot high Perry Peak, traveling some 9,000 feet at very high speed over 2,800 vertical feet. It topped a 100-foot high natural barrier and demolished everything in its path including seven buildings and a house trailer. The remains of one house were found 500 feet from the foundation. Two cars, three trucks, two pickup trucks and other equipment were crumpled. State highway 82 was under 8 feet of packed snow and power and telephone lines were ripped out for 1,000 feet.
Many of the victims were still wrapped in their blankets on their mattresses and were buried alive under as much as 12 feet snow. The injured survivors were buried more than four hours before rescue. They were sheltered by debris although still trapped under the snow. Rescuers found hard snow slabs 3 feet across and 18 inches thick that had survived the high-speed trip from near the summit of the peak. The snow was 10 feet deep where it broke away. Enroute it launched two other slides from adjacent tracks. It was later determined that avalanches had topped the 100 foot high glacial moraine at least twice before (in 1899 and 1916), a fact confirmed by counting tree growth rings on large 70-year-old aspen which had been snapped off and carried along by the snow.
While the moraine ordinarily had sheltered the village on the northwest side of Twin Lakes Reservoir, it was inadequate for this very large avalanche. The site of the tragedy is still evident, although nature has begun healing the scars with new vegetation.
On the afternoon of February 23, 1961, two women left the groomed ski slopes at Aspen to ski in unblemished snow of a small basin near the main ski run. The avalanche hazard was high and warnings had been published and posted.
The experienced skiers whisked out onto the slope and down, intent on skiing toward and then through a small stand of timber. When the first skier reached the bottom of the slope, her companion had vanished. Less than an hour later the missing skier was found suffocated under three feet of snow from a small avalanche that ran only 90 feet.
Note: These examples are from “The Snowy Torrents, Avalanche Accidents in the United States, 1910-1966,” published by the Alta Avalanche Study Center, U.S. Forest Service.
In 1972, a subdivision near Vail was allowed in an avalanche path not far from the ski area and construction began on condominiums. The builder was stopped after financial institutions withdrew money from the project on learning it was in an avalanche path and mud flow zone. Today the development is but a concrete foundation—a monument that property damage can be prevented and lives saved by responsible action. The geologically hazardous area is now zoned for open space. The case is a landmark example of what can happen when land-use regulations are legally circumvented and the builder’s and the public’s best interests are ignored.