Avalanche ignites conversation about backcountry skiing during a pandemic

A snowboarder who was buried to his neck survived a harrowing avalanche with minor injuries. The incident was captured on film.

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Avalanche ignites a conversation about backcountry skiing during a pandemic despite health warnings

A snowboarder who was buried to his neck survived a harrowing avalanche with minor injuries. A rescue call was made even though the party was able to self-evacuate before searchers organized. The incident was captured on film.

By Monica Prelle

A large human-triggered avalanche in the Eastern Sierra near Bishop on Saturday, April 11, resulted in a snowboarder being buried up to his neck, but able to clear his own airway and self-evacuate with minor injuries. Still, one of his partners called Inyo Search and Rescue for help when he initially could not see the rider from the vantage point where he was filming.

The incident is a stark reminder of what everyone fears could go wrong in a worst-case scenario during the coronavirus pandemic.

“All sorts of agencies and friends and various industries are asking people to be more careful,” Inyo SAR Captain Todd Vogel said. “Nobody expects to get in an accident, but it is a time to be more cautious than usual so we don’t put other people at risk.”

Though skiing is not banned in the Eastern Sierra, two weeks ago the Inyo County Sheriff’s office issued a strongly worded statement discourage risky activities including skiing and climbing. Mono County followed a week later.

Despite pleas, residents continue to ski the backcountry. This, however, is the first human-triggered avalanche reported even if there are signs of other slides in the area.

According to the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center incident report, the group of three people from Mammoth Lakes were camped in the Bishop Creek drainage. The closest sensor at South Lake recorded 37 inches of new snow cumulatively in the week prior. Saturday was the first clear day after a period of unsettled weather. Daytime temperatures spiked, reaching 44 degrees by 12:45 p.m., around the time of the avalanche.

One snowboarder climbed up a steep chute in the Piute Crags (ridge elevation 12,000 feet) near Mt. Emerson while his partners stayed below to film from two different vantage points. The rider descended an east-facing panel, making one large sweeping turn, then three or four smaller turns, dropping below a convexity, which released a soft slab avalanche with an estimated 10 inch-crown about 50 feet above him. That slide then triggered a much larger slab, an estimated two- to three-foot crown, high above him.

The rider was quickly engulfed, choked full of snow, and carried 900 to 1,000 vertical feet to the moraine below. He was buried up to his neck with his head and one hand above the surface on top of what he estimated to be 15 to 20 feet of heavy, concrete-like avalanche debris, the ESAC incident report said. He was able to clear his own airway and one of his partners who was on the moraine below was able to quickly dig him out.

The other partner, who was filming from further away at their camp in Birch Creek could not spot the snowboarder initially and immediately called for help. The search was called off while rescuers were still organizing.

The incident started a conversation among the backcountry community debating the morality of risky activities during a pandemic with many outraged people saying Search and Rescue should not expose themselves to each other or the endangered party by responding to calls in the midst of the stay at home orders.

“SAR is a volunteer organization. We don’t have to respond, but the fact is we are going to respond,” Vogel said. “No team is going to hang a closed sign and fail to try to save somebody — that’s just not how it works.”

Vogel said a lean crew for a search like that would require 15 to 20 people. And to further complications right now, the CHP helicopter that Inyo SAR regularly works out of Apple Valley with is currently unavailable because a crew member reportedly has COVID-19.

The affected rider reported a snowboard that was snapped in half, strained ribs, a sore throat, and fluid in his lungs. It is unclear from the incident report if he sought medical care.

“We feel very fortunate that this did not end with more significant injuries or fatality,” ESAC forecaster Josh Feinberg wrote in the incident report.“The rider is well aware of the mistakes that he made. He is working on his own debrief that he plans to share in hopes of helping others not make the same mistakes he did.”

Backcountry skiing has been banned entirely in other regions of the country. In one week in mid-March, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center recorded 33 human-triggered avalanches and nine avalanches in San Juan County over a three-day period prompted the Sheriff’s Department there to prohibit backcountry skiing.

At the end of March, an avalanche near Telluride, Colorado, required a large team of rescuers and a helicopter to evacuate an injured skier. The incident started a national conversation about the fraught situation responders are put in when responding to a call during a pandemic.

The rescue was featured in Outside Magazine and resulted in the American Avalanche Association asking skiers to stay out of the backcountry, or at the very least, ski low-angle terrain close to home.

Then in early April in Wyoming, Teton County SAR used a helicopter and a team of 30 searchers with dogs to recover the body of a 28-year-old snowboarder who was buried in an avalanche the previous day, according to Jackson Hole News reporting.

Locally, here in Mono County, public health officials continue to warn residents about how recreation injuries could tax limited resources in an already trying time for the health care system. Mono County has the highest per capita rate of the coronavirus in California, and just 17 hospital beds and 4 ventilators for 14,000 residents.

Since Mammoth Mountain closed on March 14, the resort has recorded 127 inches of snow, and despite advice and warnings, there have been numerous reports of crowds at popular local backcountry trailheads. The people counter on the backside of the Sherwins counted more than 300 people over the last weekend of March, according to Sierra Mountain Guides.

“We are still seeing recreation happen, people are going into the backcountry during some of the snowiest cycles of the season,” ESAC President Greenberg said in March. “People are recreating and we are not going to be able to stop that short of a Forest Service order.”

As of April 1, ESAC stopped issuing avalanche advisories and the organization is now strongly discouraging backcountry skiing. Even with the message loud and clear and coming from government agencies, businesses, organizations, friends-to-friends and the media, not everyone has heeded the warnings.

Still, no one wants a closed forest either.

Recommended reading: What Happens When You Need a Rescue During a Pandemic by Devon O’Neil for Outside

Watch: The incident was captured on film.