Huge snowfall over the weekend drew big crowds to ski resorts in California, but also created unstable conditions that triggered inbounds avalanches at Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. PHOTO: Bruno Long
Huge snowfall over the weekend drew big crowds to ski resorts in California, but also created unstable conditions that triggered inbounds avalanches at Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. PHOTO: Bruno Long

After Huge Snowfall, Two Inbounds Avalanches Hit California Ski Resorts

Separately, deep snow, instability, and tree wells claim six lives in California, Oregon, and Washington

Five days in and March is already the snowiest month of the season for California. In Lake Tahoe, ski resorts on the crest of the Sierra Nevada received up to 7 feet of new snow in four days, with Mammoth reporting 49 inches of snow so far this month.

But the weekend's heavy snowfall came with consequences--avalanche instability and fatal falls in tree wells--across California, Oregon, and Washington.

Two inbounds avalanches occurred in California, two people died in avalanches in the backcountry in Washington's Cascades, three more died by falling in tree wells at Oregon's Mount Bachelor and California’s China Peak, and a missing snowboarder was found dead in the trees near Squaw Valley's Squaw Creek chair.

Two inbounds avalanches in California

Squaw Valley and Mammoth both experienced inbounds avalanches, on Friday and Saturday respectively. The avalanches prompted both ski resorts to shut down operations immediately and conduct extensive search and rescue.

At Squaw Valley, the inbounds avalanche occurred at 1:40 p.m. on Friday near the Olympic Lady chairlift, which is close in proximity to the top of KT-22 where skiers had been lapping runs all day. More than 100 professional ski patrollers and emergency workers, as well as avalanche rescue dogs, responded to the incident.

Five guests were caught in the avalanche--two females and three males. One suffered a serious lower body injury and was transported to Tahoe Forest Hospital. Another was taken to the clinic at the base of the ski resort and released. The other three were unharmed.

A chilling video posted to Instagram shows people digging out one man, a snowboarder, who had been buried under the snow for six minutes.

In an interview with The San Jose Mercury News, skier Heather Turning recounted the avalanche and rescue of the snowboarder. "He had blacked out and when we pulled the snow away from his face he came to," she said. "He was so lucky."

All reported missing persons are accounted for, according to a statement released by Squaw Valley, and search operations have officially concluded. The trigger of the avalanche is unknown, but a full investigation of the incident and its cause will be conducted.

Separate from the inbounds avalanche but also at Squaw Valley, a missing person's report was filed on Thursday afternoon for Wenyu Zhang, a 42-year-old snowboarder from Rocklin, California. Search and rescue found his body the next morning at 10:10 a.m. in the Squaw Creek area of the ski resort. His cause of death remains unknown. He was wearing a helmet.

At Mammoth, the inbounds avalanche occurred at 10:15 a.m. on the upper mountain near the High Fives Express chairlift while ski patrol was conducting snow safety. The area where the slide occurred was closed to skiers, but the debris caught six Mammoth employees at the lift station below. In a statement, Mammoth said the employees were partially buried, but freed themselves quickly. Additionally, a "powder cloud" from the avalanche continued 100 yards into an area of the ski resort that was open to skiers and boarders.

The Los Angeles Times reported extremely crowded slopes on Saturday morning, with people taking advantage of five feet of snow that had recently fallen.

“I was waiting to board a ski lift when it suddenly stopped working,” Barbara Maynard of Los Angeles told The Times. “Suddenly, it was pandemonium everywhere you looked. Ambulances, police vehicles and fire engines were rolling into the area. Simultaneously, Mammoth Mountain staffers and ski patrols were roaring up the slopes on snowmobiles.”

Avalanche deaths in the Cascades

Three avalanches in seven days killed five people, The Seattle Times reported on Sunday.

Two teenage boys from Bellevue, Washington, were snowshoeing near Alpental-Snow Lake on Feburary 25, when an avalanche hit and buried them. They were identified as Niko Suokko, 18, and Declan Ervin, 17. That same day, a 32-year-old snowmobiler from Issaquah died from injuries sustained after an avalanche.

In the wake of those fatalities, two more snowmobilers died on Saturday when an avalanche occurred near Esmeralda Peak in Kittitas County. Deputies identified the victims as Zach Roundtree, 27, and James Larsen, 41.

On Saturday, the Northwest Avalanche Center rated the avalanche danger as Moderate, with some pockets of Considerable.

Tree wells claim two lives at Mount Bachelor, One at China Peak

The Associated Press reported two fatalities on the same day at Mount Bachelor, in Central Oregon. Though separate incidents, the snowboarder and skier both fell into tree wells and were covered by snow.

The victims were identified by the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office as Alfonso Braun, 24, of Bend, and Nicole Panet-Raymond, 19, of Eugene.

“Our entire mountain community is shocked and saddened,” said John McLeod, Mount Bachelor’s president and general manager, in a statement. “We are heartbroken, and our deepest condolences go out to the affected families and friends.”

At China Peak Mountain Resort in Fresno County, a 36-year-old man died Friday afternoon while snowboarding, the Fresno Bee reported.

Blake Smith of Fresno fell into five feet of snow and suffocated when he couldn’t free himself.

“We feel absolutely terrible for his family and for his friends who were here unable to help him,” said Tim Cohee, China Peak’s managing partner and general manager. “They were down below and couldn’t get to him.”