By the end of Friday the Sierra Avalanche Center had received numerous reports of Tahoe avalanches.
“Perfect Day” leads to many avalanches
Friday started as a perfect winter day. About a foot of new snow fell overnight. In the morning the sky cleared. Then by the end of the day the Sierra Avalanche Center had received many avalanche reports. Some happened naturally but many were caused by skiers and snowboarders.
In the morning the Sierra Avalanche Center posted its forecast. The center stated the obvious – that storm slabs in the new snow were a big concern. They rated the avalanche danger as “considerable,” meaning that skiers and snowboarders were likely to trigger avalanches.
Reports of Tahoe avalanches continued through the weekend. There were no fatalities but multiple people were buried in avalanches. At least one person was seriously injured.
New storm snow problem, different from Utah and Colorado
In the United States avalanches have killed 25 people so far this season, including 18 just in February. The snowpack across the mountain west has been riddled with inherent dangers since the beginning of the winter. In Colorado and Utah those persistent dangers are still playing a role in avalanches. The Sierra Nevada’s snowpack is generally faster to resolve those weaknesses. The avalanches on the holiday weekend were simply from new snow. According to the Sierra Avalanche Center the main issues are things like storm slabs and wind slabs.
Slew of Tahoe Avalanches
At Castle Peak, atop Donner Summit, a snowboarder jumped off a rock and was engulfed in snow.
Another skier-triggered avalanche near Carson Pass buried a person for about five minutes. The victim survived but had severe injuries.
At Mount Tallac the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office dispatched a search and rescue team in a helicopter to respond to an avalanche triggered by a group of backcountry skiers. The response ended when authorities confirmed that no one had been caught in the avalanche.
“I would say any time you’re caught in a slide and you walk away, it’s lucky,” said Andrew Oesterreicher, a volunteer and board member with Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue (TNSAR). “You don’t ever want to rely on that luck.”
An anonymous skier reported an avalanche on Flagpole Peak. After their first run they decided the snowpack was “bomber” and solid. So they skied a more aggressive line next.
“Clearly, it was a stupid mistake getting caught up with powder fever,” the skier reported. A few turns down the line a storm slab of new snow slid down the mountain, along with the skier.
TNSAR didn’t get any calls to respond to incidents over the weekend, Oesterreicher said. If they are dispatched it usually means the situation is tragic.
“The brutal reality is, typically, by the time we’re responding to an avalanche situation, it’s pretty much a recovery at that point,” Oesterreicher said. “Just because it takes our team so long to get to the scene.”
U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Avalanche Center
The Sierra Avalanche Center works to prevent accidents by issuing daily forecasts. The U.S. Forest Service hires three full-time avalanche forecasters who backcountry ski and then write reports. The Sierra Avalanche Center fundraises on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service to cover much of the payroll and related expenses. There are also three part-time paid observers who go skiing to check on conditions.
Due to the pandemic the center lost two fundraising sources they rely on to fund the Forest Service. The loss adds up to about $100,000, which is about a quarter of their annual budget.