Red Flags In Reality is a Jones Avalanche Awareness Month article series by Seth Lightcap detailing live-from-the field stories about five of the most common signs of avalanche danger-the Red Flags.
In breaking news, Jones team rider Ryland Bell reports in about a storm day inbounds avalanche underneath Squaw Valley’s KT-22 chairlift that blew a 16-year-old skier off the lift and partially buried another skier on December 23, 2012.
Here’s the lowdown of what happened at Squaw that day from Ryland:
“There was easily four feet of fresh on KT that morning. They hadn’t opened KT the day before so the snow was really unconsolidated. It was so deep you couldn’t really turn. All you could do was bomb it. You could tell patrol had gotten a few things to slide, but not everything. I rode ‘Diagonal Chute’ first lap and there was a big bomb hole in it, but the chute had held.
Third lap up KT I noticed a big debris pile below the ‘Fingers’. It was crazy timing to see the debris because as soon as we got to the base of the Fingers we felt the ground start shaking and heard a big rumble. Right after hearing the noise the lift swung to a stop. I looked up with just enough time to see the avalanche blasting off the top of the Fingers. Couple seconds later the powder cloud rocked our chair again. As soon as the cloud settled the people in front of us started yelling, ‘Man down! Man down!’. All I could see was a ski sticking out of the debris below the Fingers and then the chair started moving again.
Turns out, a kid two chairs in front of us got sucked off the lift and into the avalanche by the powder cloud. He was directly above the ‘Ice Fall’ and must have taken a direct hit by the blast. When his chair got hit, the lift went in reverse which caused it to auto-stop. Pretty wild, not what you’d expect to see inbounds, especially since ski patrol had bombed the Fingers three hours earlier and there was already a crown line visible just above the cliffs. The pocket that slid came from above the Fingers though. It looked like a 3-foot crown that ran from just below the chair to the looker’s right side of the face above the Fingers.” – Ryland Bell
Yellow line is the crown line. Red ‘X’ is where the kid got blown off the chair by the powder cloud. Blue ‘X’ is where Ryland Bell was on the chair when the avy hit. All locations approximate, photo not from day of incident.
Squaw Valley reported 29 inches in the last 24 hours and a storm total of 39 inches the day of the avalanche. Squaw ski patrol had done substantial avy control work in the zone that morning and had put up a closed boundary keeping all shredders out of the Fingers. The avalanche was supposedly set off by a group of riders traversing above the closed boundary.
The fact that the slide ripped from a traverse above the slope after previous bombing and control work is a testament to the danger of fresh storm snow. Of all the Red Flags, heavy snow in the last 24 hours is the most dangerous of all the warning signs. During and immediately after a storm, avalanche danger is at it’s highest because the snow pack has not had time to adjust to the new load. The more snow that falls and the faster it falls, the more dangerous it gets.
This incident also highlights the reality that no matter how much you bomb or ski cut an avy path, there is still a chance it could slide if you hit the sweet spot of a weak layer in the snowpack. Chances of this happening within the first 24 hours after a storm are much greater than if several days have gone by since it last snowed.
Thankfully, the 16-year-old skier that got swept off the lift was not buried and sustained only an injury to his shoulder. A female skier who was traversing below the Fingers at the time was also caught in the slide but was not injured.
It is also interesting to note that the 16-year-old, a Squaw Valley ski team member, was wearing a beacon at the time of the accident. Let that be a lesson to all those in the world enjoying a chest deep shred session at a resort right now. Beacons aren’t just for the backcountry. When the snow seriously stacks up, a beacon should be mandatory equipment regardless of where you ride, inbounds or out.