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Midseason Concern

A feisty snowpack and a string of incidents sound the safety alarm
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• Check every morning: Sierra Avalanche Center

Do a free online program: Know Before You Go

Read a book: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper

Take your level 1 avalanche course: American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education

Keep learning: National Avalance Center

Generally stable conditions remained through 2015, but that quickly changed in the new year, mainly because of the presence of surface hoar which, “grows during clear, humid, and calm conditions and once buried, it is a particularly thin, fragile, and persistent weak layer in the snowpack,” according to the National Avalanche Center.

Surface hoar forms on the snow surface and can be common in the Sierra, but with normal storm systems it is uncommon for it to be buried by incoming storms.

“Our powerful storms come in off of the Pacific Ocean with high winds, often times rain turning to snow, and warm temps. All of these can destroy the surface hoar before it has the chance to be buried,” said Steve Reynaud, and avalanche forecaster for SAC. This year, however, three distinct layers of surface hoar were buried in the snowpack between Jan. 5 and 13, and caused continued instability.

A Bleak January

Not every avalanche is attributed to these buried surface hoar layers, as they are only one piece of a complex avalanche puzzle, but they contributed to an avalanche-heavy January, with large slides seen inbounds and in the backcountry.

Five avalanche incidents have been reported to SAC — with at least one person caught, buried, and/or injured — through Feb. 8, with additional slides going unreported. SAC highly encourages backcountry users to report slides. “Information sharing can save people’s lives … this info helps us put out the forecast and informs the community,” Reynaud said.

Between Jan. 14 and 15, three separate incidents heightened the focus on avalanche danger and safety: Professional skier JT Holmes was buried at a reported depth of 3 feet before being dug out unharmed; a snowboarder triggered an avalanche just out-of-bounds from Sugar Bowl Resort and was carried over a cliff band; and a skier went missing from Sugar Bowl and never returned. The final incident initiated a search-and-rescue that involved more than 400 people, but after a five-day effort the search was called off by the Placer County Sheriff’s Department.

The situation throughout the West fared even worse. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) reports 18 avalanche fatalities so far in the 2015/16 season, more than half of the 27 average annual avalanche fatalities. Additionally, 10 of those fatalities occurred over a span of nine days between Jan. 16 and Jan. 24. The 13 fatalities in January were the most for that month since 2008, according to the CAIC.

Carson May, the 23-year-old Sugar Bowl ski instructor at Mountain Learning Center who went missing, brought hardship and confusion to the community. Avalanche activity was rife in the backcountry area adjacent to Sugar Bowl where he was reported missing, and heavy snow and inclement weather hampered the search.

“It is really baffling. In our 40 years, there has only been one other incident where we haven’t been able to find the person,” said Chris McConnell, the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue president, one of the 10-plus groups involved in the search. “We just weren’t able to find any clues. There were hundreds of people involved in the search, but in the end it wasn’t successful.”


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February 14, 2019