From a historical perspective, most skiers or snowboarders who die in an avalanche are typically in the backcountry.
Yet that was not the case last week when a skier and a snowboarder died at Lake Tahoe ski resorts.
And one of the victims — Bill Foster — was an extremely experienced ski patrol member at Alpine Meadows ski resort who was performing avalanche prevention when he tragically died.
The other death occurred at Donner Ski Ranch where an avalanche buried a snowboarder, who wasn’t found for several hours.
The two deaths were as many as the Tahoe region experienced during the 2011-12 season. Overall, there have been 19 avalanche fatalities in California during the past 10 years.
Last February, in an out-of-bounds area near the popular Stevens Pass ski resort in Washington, three skiers died in an avalanche.
Despite the ski resort incidents, most avalanche deaths take place in isolated backcountry or ski resort out-of-bounds areas.
But skiers and riders aren’t the only people who need to be careful. Also at risk for an avalanche are cross country skiers, and people who snowshoe or snowmobile.
Ski resorts make great efforts to mitigate avalanche conditions, reducing them to a nonfactor for skiers and snowboarders.
“Our patrol works diligently toward providing the safest ski experience possible, including early-morning in-bounds avalanche control work on steeper terrain as needed,” said John Monson, marketing director for Sugar Bowl.
“Even with these safety practices and procedures in place, skiers and riders should always be cognizant of their surroundings, be it in-bounds or out,” Monson added. “Always ski or ride with a buddy, keep them in sight, and have a meeting place confirmed and agreed upon before you start a run.”
Yet even extreme caution prior to opening an area does not make it 100 percent safe. The conditions last week — heavy snowfall, fluctuating temperatures, wind — combined to leave the Sierra snowpack unstable.
Skiers and snowboarders can trigger a slippage between two snow slabs with only a small amount of downward pressure at the wrong spot on the snow surface, resulting in an avalanche.
“We have mountain safety pages on both Alpine and Squaw’s websites that are full of tips for riding in powder and deep snow,” said Jenny Kendrick, a spokeswoman for Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley. “I’d say the top tip is to remember to ride with a buddy and keep them in sight. It’s also worth considering skiing and riding with backcountry equipment such as a beacon or probe and familiarizing yourself on how to use them.”
Foster, 53, was a professional ski patroller with 28 years on the job. But he got caught in the avalanche Monday, Dec. 24, at Alpine Meadows when he and other team members believed they were safely triggering a potentially dangerous area with an explosive charge in the Sherwood Bowl.
A ski patrol member threw an explosive, triggering the avalanche. However, according to reports, the avalanche broke much higher and wider on the slope than expected and buried Foster in snow.
Foster was found within one minute and was uncovered within eight minutes of the slide. Ski patrol members quickly initiated CPR, and Foster was transported to an ambulance and then airlifted by CareFlight helicopter to Renown Hospital in Reno, where he sadly died a day later, on Christmas.
In the incident at Donner Ski Ranch, Steven Anderson, 49, of Hirschdale was riding above the avalanche for some time, but his body was found at the base of the mountain under the snow near a rocky ridge.
By the time rescuers reached him, Anderson had been buried in snow for about five hours.
A search dog found Anderson’s body under 2 to 3 feet of snow at the base of the avalanche. Reports said the wind had blown snow to depths of 7 feet or more where Anderson was snowboarding, which was inside the ski area’s boundaries near the main lodge.
Sugar Bowl provides educational seminars on the science of snow, avalanche awareness and certification classes. It also has professionally guided powder tours into the backcountry where skiers and riders not only learn valuable life-saving survival skills, but also have a bit of fun skiing some great terrain in the process.
“With an open boundary policy in place here at Sugar Bowl, whereby skiers are allowed to leave the resort for backcountry access, we actively promote the educational components of our Backcountry Adventure Center as the resource to get in the know before you go,” Monson said.
Below are some tips for anyone venturing outside of groomed ski areas:
* Always travel with a partner. Descend risky areas one by one and watch for avalanche signs;
* Constantly evaluate for possible avalanche conditions;
* If caught in a slide, try to get off the slab or grab a tree;
* Evaluate the avalanche hazard before attempting a rescue;
* Wear an avalanche rescue beacon that signals your location;
* Pack a shovel and poles that act as snow probes in case someone gets buried; and
* Learn how to use the rescue equipment.
— Jeffrey Weidel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his winter website at http://www.examiner.com/skiing-in-san-francisco/jeffrey-weidel