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In Historic Downtown Salida

Twin Lakes Tragedy

Article by Sharon Chickering

Local History – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

TWIN LAKES is a quiet hamlet — even at the peak of tourist season when vehicles zip by on Highway 82 to climb over Independence Pass and the Continental Divide to Aspen.

Strolling the half-mile Forest Service interpretive footpath from the center of Twin Lakes to the top of Mount Bump on a summer day, one can survey the peaceful blue of two lakes surrounded by a forest of pine, spruce and aspen. Yellow shrubby cinquefoil, pink wild roses, and blue lupine bloom in low-lying fields dotted with elk scat. It is hard to believe that, in this very spot, seven lives were snuffed out in the space of minutes early one morning in January 1962.

Ordinarily, winter snow falls on the slopes above Aspen before the clouds cross over the Sawatch Range into southern Lake County. Twin Lakes has an average annual precipitation of only 20 inches a year, but the winter of 1961-62 was unusual.

One former resident recalls a snowstorm at the end of August 1961 which wrecked havoc with vacationers’ plans, plus earthquake tremors in November, and lots of wind.

The following January, “we had one heck of a snowstorm,” recounts another long-time resident. “Nothing since has come with the winds and snow that led up to that snowstorm.”

To give some indication of the severity of that winter’s conditions, reports say that during the first weekend of 1962 (January 6-8), Frémont Pass, 35 miles north of Twin Lakes, received 41 inches of new snow with some drifting as deep as 20 feet. A couple of days later a record low temperature of -28°F was recorded there.

Another storm began on Thursday, January 18, with wind gusts up to 70 mph, causing three major ski areas to shut down their lifts.

Twin Lakes, Colorado Saturday, January 20, 1962

On Saturday snow continues to mount and winds gust from the south. General Lee Shelton, who operates a water well service from his home just west of Twin Lakes Village, takes out his bulldozer to plow neighbors’ driveways. His fifteen-year-old son, Steve, may have gone out to help.

Most likely with the fierce wind and snow, wife, Marie, and daughters Linda, 10, and Vickie, 7, (“sweet little girls”) stay safe in the house. Although General (his given name, not a military rank) must glance up Gordon Gulch behind his house more than once as the snow accumulates, his home is separated from the Gulch by a 100-foot-high moraine. He has heard of previous avalanches down the gulch, but all were stopped by the moraine before reaching the highway.

In addition, a huge boulder sits behind the Shelton house and General has told the local postmaster that if an avalanche does come, the boulder should divert the snow around his house.

South across Highway 82, the Adamich family sits tight in their knotty-pine-sided home adjacent to a 23-acre meadow on the shore of the Upper Lake. Bill Adamich had sold off his dairy cattle the previous fall and works on the protection force of Climax Molybdenum Mine at the summit of Frémont Pass.

However, there is still one cow and calf in the barn. About the time Shelton is plowing snow, Adamich, on a four-day weekend from Climax, is probably fighting his way to the barn to feed the animals.

His wife, Barbara, inside with sons, Billy, 9, and Michael, 7, may be trying to keep them from pestering their pregnant dog, Pepe (who would much rather sleep under the kitchen table than romp around outside). The boys are probably hoping for another day off if a snow day is declared on Monday at the Twin Lakes School.

Sometime during the night, uneasy because of the storm, Barbara gets out of bed, slips into a heavy sweatshirt, and steps out onto the porch to see if it is still snowing. It is. On returning to bed, she keeps the shirt on because she is too sleepy to remove it.

Twin Lakes Sunday, January 21, 1962

At the Adamich house, the dog whines about 4 a.m., and Bill rises to let her out and then back in.

Around 5:30 a.m., neighbors Bud and Edith Davis hear a thump as if snow has fallen off the roof, and their electricity goes off. They decide to wait until daylight to do anything about it. Mr. and Mrs. Frank Cerise hear the sound of a rising gale, and Mrs. Cerise moves her African violets away from the window.

Jack Rowe, asleep in a log cabin he has rented from Nels Lindstone, and Lindstone, living in a trailer in the back yard, hear nothing and awaken at their usual times. Adamich would later say that he saw a bright flash and heard a loud sound as if his house had blown up.

After Lindstone rises, he prepares and eats breakfast. Not until he hears the door of the log cabin open about 8:30 a.m. does he open his trailer door to greet his tenant, Rowe. Noting the odd expression on Rowe’s face, he steps farther out his door and is stunned to see that to the east, where nearby homes had stood the day before, there is now only deep snow mixed with splintered wood, downed trees, broken furniture and appliances, and smashed equipment.

Realizing that help is urgently needed, Lindstone and Rowe start walking the half mile to the telephone at the Twin Lakes Store. Lindstone has trouble keeping up with his younger companion in the deep snow, however, so he returns to his shed to gather shovels and axes while Rowe continues on alone.

Rowe is soon back with the news that the store’s phone is also out, and they need to secure a vehicle to drive the eight or so miles east to Granite. Together Lindstone and Rowe make their way to the Davis house, just east of the slide area and work unsuccessfully to dig the Davis’s automobile from a snowbank left by the plow. Two young skiers on vacation from Oklahoma drive up the road; they agree to turn around and return to Granite to call in an alarm.

The Lake County Sheriff’s department is notified at 8:50 a.m. Nearly three and a half hours have elapsed since the sleeping victims were caught in the catastrophic snowslide.

The Rinker family, deciding it is time to evacuate their home because of avalanche danger, arrive on the scene from farther up the road. As the assembled residents make their way toward a protrusion in the meadow, they hear muffled sounds and realize that this had been part of the Adamich house.

Buried by about a foot of snow — but under a portion of his roof — Bill is pinned in a semi-standing position by a dresser and two sliding closet doors. A prayer book from the dresser sits on his chest.

Immediately after the slide, Bill Adamich could move enough to look at his watch, but as the minutes and hours have passed, the snow has settled more densely, pressing him tighter and tighter. Intermittently he calls to his wife and sons, and prays. He is freed about 9:30 a.m.– after being entombed for four hours. The dog, Pepe, is dug out from under the remains of the kitchen table.

Hearing a sound from another part of the ruined house, Nels Lindstone calls out: “Are you in there, Barbara?” Mrs. Adamich answers in the affirmative, wondering where she is and what has happened. Lindstone, Jack Rowe, and another man work for over an hour to free her, hampered by large trees that block the way, and limited space in which to swing an ax.

When her face is uncovered, Barbara tells her rescuers: “Thank you for coming.” She is finally lifted from her frozen would-be grave after nearly six hours and placed in a waiting ambulance. Barbara credits her survival partly on the sweatshirt she is still wearing. Until that day she is like most of the rest of us in thinking that tragedies only happen to others, not one’s own family.

Both Barbara and Bill are transported to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Leadville, suffering from frostbite, cuts, and bruises, and the nerve-wracking uncertainty of not knowing what has happened to their two sons.

At 1 p.m., Steve Shelton’s body is found under ten feet of debris, and soon after, about fifteen feet away and under eight feet of snow, rescuers find the bodies of his parents — whose bed was swept straight across the road into the meadow below. All are still on their mattresses, covered by sheets, blankets and bed spreads. Marie Shelton is found in a sleeping position, but rescuers speculate that General may have been awake because he is stretched out on his back with his hands over his head.

The Adamich’s cow and calf are found in a small, still-standing, portion of the barn and are taken to a Buena Vista farm for care.

As word of the tragedy spreads, Climax Molybdenum sends in heavy equipment and U.S. Army personnel arrive from Camp Hale and Fort Carson to assist. An estimated 500 to 700 people from surrounding towns probe the snow. Later in the afternoon, approximately 2,000 people are on hand to either help with the rescue effort or observe from the sidelines. The rescue operation turns grim as hope for more survivors fades.

The body of Billy Adamich is uncovered next, then, about 4 p.m., the bodies of Linda and Vickie Shelton. The girls are locked in each other’s arms as if they had a few seconds to grab for each other when their home took the avalanche’s direct hit. Although Michael Adamich has not been found, the search is called off at 5:30 p.m. because of darkness and another approaching storm.

Aftermath

Later studies would show that an avalanche first released on 12,682-foot Parry Peak, one of four lesser peaks leading up to 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain. It in turn triggered a slab avalanche in Gordon Gulch. With a depth of ten feet and a vertical drop of 2800 feet, the snow could have reached speeds of 150 to 200 miles an hour or more.

A fast-moving powder avalanche with such volume would have been little influenced by terrain features including large boulders and glacial moraines, and would obliterate everything in its path, in this case several homes, a house trailer, and a grove of 60- to 70-year-old aspens. By the time the slide reached the highway, it was approximately 1,000 feet wide, and ran another 1,000 feet past the road.

One of the destroyed homes belonged to Joe Shelton (brother of General) who, with his family, was away. Hazardous road conditions had prevented the family’s return.

On Monday, January 22, before the search was resumed, the State Highway Department shot and released several other potential avalanches in the area. Not until Tuesday, January 23, however, was the body of Michael Adamich found under twelve feet of snow and rubble.

The Adamich parents acknowledged that they had been expecting the worst.

On Sunday evening, the Terrier-Pekinese-Bulldog-mix, Pepe, gave birth to seven black and white puppies — four males and three females — which just happened to be in the same proportion as the people who lost their lives.

The community latched onto the weird coincidence calling it “The Miracle of Mt. Elbert” — perhaps in an effort to relieve the feelings of helplessness they felt in the face of such tragedy.

In a cooperative effort, the American Legion Post and radio station KBRR named the puppies for Leadville figures: Climax, Molly Brown, Leadville Jonny, Baby Doe, HAW, Matchless, and Avalanche. With a blitz of publicity, the puppies were auctioned off, with several Colorado cities and radio stations participating in the bidding.

Leadville High School held a benefit basketball game, waitresses gave a day’s wages and area businesses donated merchandise for Bill and Barbara who had lost everything: children, home, and possessions. Nearly $7,000 was collected for the two affected families.

Once rescue efforts ceased, quiet returned to Gordon Gulch. An eerie quiet. No children made snow angels or threw snowballs or chased dogs or screamed with exhilaration as they played in the fresh snow.

Two families, tricked perhaps by the beauty and tranquility of the area, had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for them and their friends and neighbors, life has never been the same.

Epilogue:

On January 29, 1962, Bill and Barbara left their hospital beds to attend funeral services for William, Jr. and Michael Adamich in St. Joseph’s Church. They were buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery (now part of St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery) along with their infant sister, Patricia, who died in 1955 of a congenital heart defect. A funeral parlor paid for transportation of the Sheltons’ bodies to Hobbs, N. M., where General’s parents and a brother lived, and services were held in that city that same day.

After spending seven and eleven days respectively in the hospital, Bill and Barbara Adamich moved into the home of his mother in Leadville.

The strain of losing two grandchildren in such tragic cir cum stances was too much for the 81-year-old woman, however, and Frances Adamich died on February 14 of that year.

Bill and Barbara continued to live in Leadville until 1981, when Bill was advised to leave the 10,000-foot elevation because of a heart condition. So he retired from Climax. They do have two more sons, one born to them on Christmas Eve 1962, and the other adopted.

Following three years in Salida and another three in Grand Junction, they moved to Olympia, Washington. where both sons also live. The couple has been married 48 years. Bill has been suffering from cancer since about 1990, but both he and Barbara enjoy a close relationship with their twelve-year-old granddaughter.

“Family is everything,” says Barbara.

In a recent telephone conversation, Barbara, a warm, gentle woman with a great spirit, had the following thoughts on their ordeal: “The avalanche was a devastating thing…. You don’t ever get over losing your children…. You tend to go under if you don’t have the foundation of the love of the Lord…. We were amazed at the kindness, compassion and neighborliness of people and the love that poured out and is still left in our hearts.”

Barbara still corresponds with some of the people they got to know during that traumatic period in their lives, and of the Shelton family she says, “They were good people.”

Could It Happen Again?

The main factors leading to avalanches have to do with the right (or wrong) combinations of terrain, weather and snowpack. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 98% of all avalanches start on slopes of 25°-50°.

With a 20° slope, Gordon Gulch was approaching the requisite incline and had a possible release area of 150 acres. Wind acts to fill avalanche starting zones with heavier snow and that, in combination with the heavy snowfall in January 1962 and a base not strong enough to hold the additional weight, triggered the slide. One side off Parry Peak probably slid first and in turn triggered the more massive avalanche down Gordon Gulch.

The tons of snow that flowed down like a raging, flooding river overflowed the ravine bottom, poured over the moraine, and slammed into buildings alongside the highway.

Historical accounts of the Gordon Gulch area tell of avalanche deaths occurring on February 3, 1899, when one person was killed, in January 1916 when two miners at the Gordon Tiger mine were caught up and killed, and in 1929 or ’30 when a man working at the nearby White Star Mine was injured in an avalanche and died later of his injuries.

Additional slides without deaths occurred in May 1884, late February 1899, and January 1906. With over one hundred years of data to draw upon, no one should be complacent about the possibility of another avalanche occurring in Gordon Gulch at some time in the future.

Accounts of other avalanches report buildings exploding from some sort of vacuum created inside them and of structures being destroyed by the air blast of the powder cloud preceding the actual snowslide. Snow crystals increase the air density of such powder clouds so they can hit with the force of a 180 mph wind. This could account for the sounds reported by the Twin Lakes survivors and for the destruction of the buildings in the cloud’s path. People’s chances for survival are greater if they are buried with debris which can act to form air pockets and protect them from suffocation by the increasing pressure of the settling snow.

ACCORDING TO MAPS accompanying a 1975 report by Arthur Mears for the Colorado Geological Survey, the area encompassing the southeast side of Parry Peak and the entire Gordon Gulch is a high hazard zone for avalanches. Although that area stops just short of the homes destroyed in the 1962 tragedy, the run-out zone extends well into the meadow below where the Adamich home was located, and is designated as a moderate hazard area.

High hazard zones are defined as those that run every 25 years or less with impact pressures of 500 pounds per inch or more. Avalanches in moderate hazard zones occur at intervals of more than 25 years, with pressure of less than 1,000 pounds per square inch.

Although neither the U.S. Forest Service nor Lake County now monitors avalanches, the Colorado Highway Department does have six forecasters as well as thirty-five observers throughout the state. The Lake County Land Use Coördinator reported that since the mid-1970s, new subdivisions are not allowed in avalanche zones, but in the two years she has held her position, she has not located the maps designating those areas.

Today at the base of Gordon Gulch sit two or three garage-type structures as well as a house trailer. It is unclear whether the trailer is occupied during the winter months and there are no structures in the meadow opposite, but nearly 40 years have passed so the odds of another avalanche occurring steadily increase

Sharon Chickering lives and writes in Leadville, and has so far avoided avalanches..

 

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