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3 skiers missing after avalanche in Colorado, officials say

Recovery efforts were suspended on Tuesday because of hazardous conditions and will resume Wednesday, the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management said.

This illustration provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center shows, circled in blue, the area between the towns of Silverton and Ophir where the avalanche occurred. Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Three backcountry skiers in Colorado were missing and feared dead after the group they were traveling with triggered a large avalanche Monday, burying four members of the group in debris, officials said Tuesday.

The avalanche occurred Monday afternoon in an area known locally as The Nose, situated between the towns of Silverton and Ophir, according to an initial report of the episode from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

DeAnne Gallegos, a spokeswoman for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, said that a search for the missing skiers had taken place Monday and Tuesday but was suspended Tuesday evening because conditions in the area were “so unstable and so dangerous.” She said the search would resume Wednesday morning, “weather permitting.”

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The chances of recovering someone alive after two days are “very low,” Gallegos said. “We are already changing our language to recovery mission” from rescue mission, she said.

Recovery workers “know where the skiers are, they have been located,” Gallegos said. But she added that questions remain. “Are they 5 feet down?” she asked. “Two feet down?”

Officials have not released the names of the missing skiers.

The episode came after the deaths of four skiers in three avalanches in Colorado in December. After the first two, the local authorities warned people visiting the mountainous area to closely monitor weather conditions.

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Gallegos said Monday’s avalanche occurred near those earlier avalanches.

The most recent avalanche occurred Monday afternoon as a group of seven backcountry skiers was on a mountain in the Nose area. At the time, the area’s avalanche hazard was rated “considerable” — which is “a Level 3 on a scale of 5” — said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “It is a very dangerous level. It is when you say human-triggered avalanches are likely.”

These skiers, however, were “well-equipped to be there,” he said.

At some point — officials have not determined when exactly — the avalanche was set off. Four of the seven skiers were completely buried.

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The three other skiers were able to immediately locate and rescue one of the people who had been buried, according to Gallegos. That person suffered only minor injuries, officials said.

Those skiers were unable to locate the three others who had been buried, Gallegos said. At least one member of the surviving skiers left the area to get cellphone reception and call 911, which is when the authorities learned of the missing skiers, she said.

When snow starts moving in an avalanche, “it’s like moving concrete,” Gallegos said.

“No matter how prepared you are,” she added, “you are always open to an accident like this.”

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