RENO, Nev. — An avalanche was reported Thursday at a California resort near Lake Tahoe, one day after a major avalanche roared down an adjoining mountain, trapping several people and killing a 66-year-old man.
The Second Avalanche
The second avalanche occurred around 12:30 p.m. Thursday near the Wolverine Bowl section of Alpine Meadows, said resort spokesperson Patrick Lacey. No employees or guests were injured, though ski patrol searched the area with probes, beacons and a dog team to be sure, he said.
Wednesday’s death at the sister mountain Palisades Tahoe was the first U.S. avalanche fatality of the season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Such deaths are far more likely to occur on unmaintained, back-country slopes rather than resort trails.
Resort Operations After the Avalanche
After closing down every lift and trail in the aftermath of Wednesday’s avalanche, Palisades reopened many runs on Thursday. But its iconic KT-22 lift, which serves the area of mostly expert runs where the slide occurred, remained closed while crews worked to clear a road to enable snowcats and snowmobiles to enter and clean up.
The resort said it would be a “rigorous snow safety day.” About half the lifts at Alpine Meadows were open, but the gondola connecting it to Palisades remained closed. Lifts serving Wolverine Bowl were reopened after Thursday’s snowslide.
Yesterday’s tragedy was incredibly difficult for our community. Our heart-felt condolences are extended to all who suffered loss and trauma resulting from this incident. (cont) pic.twitter.com/ZDf9O7690Q
— Palisades Tahoe (@palisadestahoe) January 11, 2024
Details of the Avalanche
A storm had blanketed the area when Wednesday’s avalanche hit around 9:30 a.m., sweeping up four people. The debris field spanned about 150 feet (46 meters) wide, 450 feet (137 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) deep, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said.
Janet He said she and her husband had just gotten off KT-22 when she felt the ground slip away under her skis. After tumbling about 200 feet (60 meters) down the slope, she ended up buried under snow, unable to breathe, she told CBS 13. She asked herself, “Am I going to die here?”
Her husband, Joseph Lu, was above, frantically using a ski pole to punch in the snow to find his wife. A stranger managed to locate her and pull her to safety.
Another skier caught in Wednesday’s avalanche estimated that he was buried under about a foot of snow and debris for about eight minutes. Jason Parker said he was enjoying the fresh powder when he was hit by a wave of snow, “going headfirst, trying to swim to the top.”
After coming to a halt, Parker screamed for several minutes before telling himself to calm down and save oxygen. “It was so weird,” he told KCRA 3, adding that he began to think, “This is the way you’re going out.”
Just as he began to lose consciousness, searchers broke through and created an airway for him as they dug him out.
Avalanche Safety Measures
Ethan Greene, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s executive director, said ski resorts have become very good at mitigation work and triggering small snowslides intentionally when the slopes are closed to prevent avalanche accidents. Just 3% of the 244 avalanche deaths in the U.S. in the past 10 years have been in “open, operating areas of ski resorts,” he said.
But he said it’s impossible to prevent them from occurring altogether.
“We are dealing with Mother Nature. We are dealing with a natural hazard in very complex systems in mountain environments,” Greene said.
A 2020 avalanche at Alpine Meadows killed one skier and seriously injured another a day after a major storm. Another avalanche at the resort in March 1982 killed seven people, including several employees.
Greene is warning outdoor enthusiasts to be prepared for a significant increase in avalanche danger during the upcoming holiday weekend in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. Like the Sierra Nevada, the region has had below-normal snowfall prior to the past week, when a bout of winter storms moved through, and more is on the way.
“We could have a generally below-average winter, but if a dry period is followed by a really wet period, that could be enough to produce a really big avalanche cycle.”