Bombproof Sierra snow still a hazard
Snow sport enthusiasts had a lot to celebrate Presidents Day weekend as local ski resorts reported up to 20 inches of new snow.
But it was also a reminder that, as peaceful as it may seem, snow can also be a powerful, deadly force.
Reno resident Gerilyn Ewing was skiing with 11 other people between Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley ski resorts when she and two others were trapped by an avalanche Sunday. One skier dug himself out, another was found by his skiing companions.
But Ewing was not as lucky.
Ewing’s boyfriend, who was one of the three buried by the avalanche, told reporters Ewing was an experienced skier who took all safety precautions that day.
The ski party entered Forest Service land by crossing Sugar Bowl boundaries, into a popular backcountry area featured in National Geographic Adventure’s February issue.
The article, which stated that Tahoe has some of the safest slopes in the country, also said the Sierra snowpack is often “bombproof” and that “the snow sticks like cake frosting shot through a fire hose.”
But even with its relatively stable snowpack, avalanche danger should always be a consideration in Tahoe’s backcountry.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, avalanches have killed approximately 32 people a year for the past nine years in the Western states.
Though most of those deaths occurred in the Rocky Mountains, the avalanche death toll in the Sierra Nevada is on the rise, according to experts.
Randall Osterhuber, of the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory, told the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza in December – following an avalanche incident at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe’s new ski terrain, the Chutes – that the Sierra Nevada averages one avalanche fatality a year.
Is it because there’s more snow in recent years? Osterhuber said that’s not the case.
“Snowboarders, skiers and snowmobilers are pushing the limits of those three sports,” he said.
And as they push the limits, many aren’t learning proper safety precautions or how to gauge avalanche danger.
Though Ewing may have been one experienced skier with plenty of avalanche knowledge, this tragedy is a reminder that even the most experienced snow sport enthusiasts are taking a risk on the slopes.
Please, be cautious this winter season.
When venturing out into the backcountry, tell someone where you are going and when you will return.
Take maps, a compass, extra clothing, food and water.
Be careful on the days following a storm, as that is when the snowpack is most unstable.
For more information, visit the Central Sierra Avalanche Advisory Web site at http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe/documents/avalanche/current_advisory.htm.
– From the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza in Incline Village
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