Tragedy struck in Ouray County on January 18 when an ice climber on a guided tour died after being struck by an avalanche triggered by falling ice. Additional details reveal more about what happened on that fateful day.

According to an official report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the guided tour started at approximately 7:45 AM with plans to climb a route called The Dungeon, also known as Petefish Slab, in Uncompahgre Gorge near Ouray. The climbing party, made up of one guide and three clients, parked at mile marker 89 on US Highway 550 to access the route at approximately 8:10 AM. After trekking through snow-covered terrain to the base of the route, the group started climbing at 9:30 AM with the guide leading the route, setting up a top rope for the other climbers.

A top rope set-up allows climbers to tackle a route with much less of a fall risk.

The female climber that died was the first to climb the route, stepping to the side of the route during the third climber’s turn to take photographs. Both the first and second climber were untethered at this point.

Suddenly, there was a loud crack and ice started to fall around an estimated 10:45 AM. The third climber that was on the route at the time of the accident was hit by ice, though escaped the situation uninjured. A small avalanche estimated at 4 inches deep struck and buried the first climber, though it was initially unclear where the climber had ended up.

Dungeon Ice Climbing Route Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Dungeon Ice Climbing Route. Photo Credit: Colorado Avalanche Information Center; preliminary report.

At this point, the party believed the climber was buried in Red Mountain Creek at the bottom of the gorge, which was too dangerous to search due to fragile ice and fast-flowing water. The party also lacked avalanche rescue tools, limited to using their hands and ice climbing equipment.

The guide was able to send out an SOS message via an InReach device, though there was no cell service near the creek. The group was able to place a phone call from higher up on the gorge giving specific directions to search and rescue.

Shortly after 11 AM, Ouray Mountain Rescue made their way to the party, arriving at the parked car at 11:38 AM. The rescue team descended into the gorge and started to search for the buried climber.

At 12:23 PM, the climber was found in the creek bed under five feet of snow and ice, more than an hour after the slide occurred. The climber was removed from the snow, but efforts to resuscitate the trapped woman were ultimately unsuccessful.

Included in the report of the incident by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center was the detail that avalanche deaths involving climbers are rare, with this accident being the fifth avalanche-related climbing death in 10 years in Colorado. In this case, the falling ice was the main hazard, not the loose snow.

While no member of the climbing party was carrying avalanche rescue equipment, it’s unlikely that it would have made a difference in this case. That being said, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center encourages climbers entering a snowy backcountry to carry rescue equipment with them as this can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

The route the group was on is featured on climbing website Mountain Project and is rated as a WI3-4 on the water ice grading system. This means that the route has near vertical sections, but also spots to rest and moderate protection. This scale ranges from W1 (a walk-up requiring only crampons) to W7 (dangerous, vertical to overhanging).

The deceased climber was later identified as Van Le Little, 44, of Seattle, Washington.

Thanks goes out to the search and rescue team involved in responding and recovering the climber.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, “All of the fatal avalanche accidents we investigate are tragic events. We do our best to describe each one to help the people involved and the community as a whole better understand them.”

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