Avalanche victim an outdoor lover, co-workers say

Man was involved in Fort Carson adventure, recreational program

A man who was killed in a human-triggered avalanche in the San Juan Mountains on Thursday was identified by co-workers Friday as 27-year-old Kellen Sams, an outdoors enthusiast who helped lead a Fort Carson-based outdoor adventure program.

The avalanche hit around 3 p.m. near Cirque Mountain , 10 to 15 miles southwest of Ridgway in remote Ouray County, Ouray County Sheriff Dominic Mattivi said.

Sams, of Manitou Springs, was on a personal trip with a group of seven or eight people skiing the Dallas Trail, which is part of a hut-to-hut system in the county, according to Mattivi and Sams’ co-workers. The group was equipped with avalanche beacons.

At some point, the group split up, with Sams and 24-year-old Dominic Muth of Breckenridge ending up at the bottom of an avalanche run and several others off to the side of the run.

Another group of people at the top of a ridge — Mattivi said he’s not sure at this point whether they were part of the group or separate from it — apparently triggered the slide, burying Sams and Muth at the bottom.

The pair were caught under 2 feet of snow and were dug out by other members of their group. Sams, who was thrown into a tree, was unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene, despite efforts from group members to resuscitate him, Mattivi said.

There were conflicting reports about Muth’s injuries, with some indicating he suffered broken bones and others indicating a dislocated hip.

He was taken to Montrose Memorial Hospital. An update on his condition wasn’t available Friday afternoon.

Mattivi said members of the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team and sheriff’s officials were flown by three helicopters into a staging area three or four miles from the avalanche zone.

Rescuers then used Sno-Cats and snowmobiles to reach the avalanche area and move the victims to the helicopters.

Sams was the recreational programmer for Adventure Programs and Education for Fort Carson’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program, which provides year-round services to military personnel.

Program officials said Sams was born in Madison, Wis., and spent most of his life on the East Coast.

He graduated in 2006 from Green Mountain College, a four-year environmental liberal arts college in Poultney, Vt.

“That’s just his passion, the outdoors,” a co-worker told The Daily Sentinel on Friday. “He certainly was within his realm.”

The sheriff said the Dallas Trail has grown in popularity over the years because of its remote location.

According to its Web site, San Juan Hut Systems was created in 1987 and contains a series of six huts.

“Our winter hut system offers over 60 miles of Nordic trails and access to phenomenal remote backcountry skiing,” the Web site says.

“You are unlikely to cross another’s tracks. The San Juan Mountains present tremendous snow quality and first descent possibilities.”

Mattivi said current snow and weather conditions in the San Juans were primed for an avalanche.

He said warm days and cold nights have created a freeze-thaw cycle that has contributed to unstable snow.

He also noted the slide occurred on a north-facing slope, where wind-blown snow accumulates on top of old layers of snow.

“It’s almost like ball bearings, so it’s not real stable,” Mattivi said.

The sheriff said the last fatal avalanche in Ouray County occurred in 1992, when a slide on U.S. Highway 550 swept two state workers down a mountainside, killing one.


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