A final report on a fatal avalanche that killed two Durango backcountry skiers last weekend says it appears the skiers likely triggered the slide while climbing up an avalanche path.
The two skiers – identified as Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, 53, and Albert “Bert” Perry, 55 – left Durango on the morning of Dec. 19 to ski the north face of an area known as Battleship, northwest of Silverton.
A report released Thursday says the pair reached the trailhead around 10 a.m., and then skied about a mile before coming down a slope into Mineral Creek.
From the bottom, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said, Paffendorf and Perry headed east and into the north face of Battleship. The pair made one run, then climbed west through a sparsely wooded area toward the center of the north face of Battleship.
It is believed Paffendorf and Perry were traveling uphill in an avalanche path when they triggered the slide, which started above them.
“Walking up a big avalanche path during conditions like that is a dangerous thing to do,” said Ethan Greene, executive director of the CAIC. “It’s a really unfortunate accident.”
Greene said when backcountry skiers trigger avalanches, it is not uncommon for slides to break above skiers.
The avalanche, according to CAIC, occurred on a steep slope above tree line, with a crown face about 12 to 20 inches deep and about 700 feet wide. The avalanche ran 1,600 vertical feet, from the alpine into a tree-line creek bed.
Around 8 p.m., Paffendorf and Perry were reported overdue. Crews with San Juan Search and Recuse began a mission, and a Flight For Life helicopter scanned the area, finding “significant avalanche activity” on Battleship.
Because of the significant avalanche risk and the dangers of traveling in the backcountry at night, the search was put off around 11 p.m. until the next morning.
The CAIC, however, said three close friends of Paffendorf and Perry went to search for them on their own, following the pair’s tracks to the base of the avalanche debris and using a beacon.
The friends found the pair before midnight at an elevation of about 11,100 feet. Both skiers had deployed their avalanche airbags. The friends excavated the bodies and marked the location, returning to the trailhead around 2 a.m.
In commenting on the incident, the CAIC said Paffendorf and Perry were “very experienced backcountry travelers.”
But Greene said conditions so far this year have presented avalanche risks not seen in recent years, so places people may be familiar with could hold dangers that haven’t existed on previous trips.
“It’s been hard for us to communicate some of this to people this year,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, this accident is kind of an illuminative example.”
On the day of the accident, the CAIC had listed avalanche danger in the San Juan Mountains as “considerable,” not the highest risk category for the center but a listing that highlights high avalanche danger and the need for sound decision-making.
“We’d been seeing avalanches triggered really easily,” Greene said. “The sky is not falling, but you need to be a little extra careful.”
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. Additional snow on top of that weak layer causes avalanches.
Greene said other skiers in the area that day were interviewed, who mostly stayed in lower angle areas and in the trees, noting the dangerous conditions on the higher, steeper and open slopes.
“They (Paffendorf and Perry) went on a day that wasn’t a good day to be there,” Greene said.
The CAIC noted this was the second accident in the Battleship area where avalanches started above a group, referring to a Jan. 21, 2019, incident where two backcountry skiers were caught but escaped without serious injury.
Of the pair’s friends’ rescue attempt, the CAIC wrote, “the three rescuers were willing to accept a level of risk that was not appropriate for Search and Rescue. While they found the bodies hours before Search and Rescue would have, the swifter discovery did not change the outcome of the accident.”
Paffendorf was an anesthesiologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center for the past eight years, and Perry was a homebuilder before becoming a Realtor for Coldwell Banker Heritage House Realtors in Durango about four years ago.
Friends and colleagues have noted how experienced and familiar the pair was with the terrain.
The other avalanche fatality this year, Greene said, also involved a male in his 50s who was experienced, highlighting the uncommon, yet not unprecedented, dangerous snowpack so far this season.
“This year is a little bit different,” he said. “That place you always go to, think about whether it’s a good day to go there.”
Greene added that investigators have been able to track Paffendorf’s and Perry’s movements before the avalanche, but because there were no witnesses, investigators must use best judgments to explain the incident.
“We’ll never know exactly what happened,” he said.