A Ketchum skier was killed in an inbounds avalanche Friday, Jan. 22 at Sun Valley Resort. The avalanche occurred at 2:31 p.m. on Bald Mountain in the Seattle Ridge area. Sun Valley Ski Patrol located Timothy L. Michael, 54, 15 minutes later in the slide by tracking his avalanche beacon. He was unconscious when found, and was transported to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The area where the avalanche occurred is off the groomed trails at 7,300 feet in elevation, below Fire Trail Lane and above Lower Broadway. The avalanche slid 200 feet down a 38-degree, northeast-facing slope covered in scattered small trees. The area of the slide is inside the ski area boundary, but a closed area sits between the Fire Trail and Lower Broadway. Officials at Sun Valley did not return calls by press time to confirm with OnTheSnow.com whether the slide occurred in the closed area or not.
The Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, which conducted a site investigation following the incident, reported that the avalanche most likely triggered on a rollover of 40-to-45 degrees about 100 vertical feet above the skier. It broke 2-to-3 feet deep and covered a swath 40-50 feet wide. The report said that the avalanche carried the victim into a dense stand of small trees, burying him 5-to-6 feet deep.
The avalanche came on the tail of three snowstorms in five days, accumulating 30 inches of powder and bumping Sun Valley Resort to 100 percent open to the delight of visitors and locals alike. The new snow, however, built up on a weak, faceted snowpack. That new layer has elevated avalanche concerns for backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
Avalanche forecasters for the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center are warning against backcountry travel in the Sun Valley region. "Severe avalanche conditions will persist throughout the weekend in the backcountry ... This is not the time to duck the rope on Baldy," Chris Lundy stated in the center's report Jan. 23.
Forecaster Blase Reardon reiterated Lundy's sentiments on the report this morning, Jan. 24: "We are dealing with a dangerous snowpack. I'll repeat that, because any details about it aren't nearly as important as that conclusion: we're dealing with a dangerous snowpack."
Avalanche danger this weekend is widespread across parts of the western U.S. Big storms stomping last week across California, Nevada, and Arizona deposited 5-to-9 feet of new snow with high winds loading slopes with cornices.
The Northern Arizona Emergency Operation Center closed Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area Jan. 23 due to extreme avalanche danger. The wilderness area, which sits in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, is popular for backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing by launching from Arizona Snowbowl. The order prohibits entrance to the wilderness from Arizona Snowbowl until further notice. "This week's snowfall is on pace to be the greatest in over 30 years," the closure order stated.
Arizona Snowbowl also issued a warning for inbounds skiers and riders in its snow report Sunday morning, Jan. 24. The resort advised skiers not to venture alone off the groomed trails inbounds, noting that off-piste areas hold the greatest risk, including tree wells.
Forecasters at California's three avalanche centers detailed continuing concerns with the snow pack on reports this morning, Jan. 24. Mt. Shasta, Sierra, and Eastern Sierra Avalanche Centers all targeted wind-loaded slabs near and above tree line as holding the persistent potential for slides around Mammoth Mountain, June Mountain, Mount Shasta, and Lake Tahoe resorts. El Nino conditions prompted climatologists to predict above normal precipitation for California over the next three months, bringing a boon for skiers, but adding an increased risk of avalanches.
The avalanche centers advise backcountry skiers and riders to take precautions by evaluating the snow pack, choosing cautious routes, and making conservative decisions.
Check snowfall totals at OnTheSnow.com.