Deaths of 5 Skiers Stun Mammoth

Times Staff Writers

MAMMOTH LAKES — The deaths of five skiers over a recent seven-day period on or near Mammoth Mountain appear to have been tragic accidents but have shaken this hamlet of outdoor enthusiasts.

One victim was a Los Angeles dentist and avid outdoorsman, another a retired water deliveryman from Garden Grove, the third a San Diego teenager and the fourth a marketing representative from Laguna Niguel. The fifth was an accomplished ski patrol member traversing the Eastern Sierra's breathtaking backcountry.

Three skiing accidents and a heart attack on Mammoth Mountain on four consecutive days resulted in four of the deaths. On the seventh day, the fifth victim, an eight-year veteran of the resort's ski patrol, was killed in an avalanche 55 miles north of the famed winter playground.

"By the second day, we were all looking around saying, 'Wow,' " said Mammoth Mountain spokeswoman Joani Lynch. "And by the fourth day, it was unbelievable."

Locals and tourists are still trying to absorb the enormousness of the tragedy that befell the mountain community five hours north of Los Angeles, a snow sports destination that draws 1 million visitors a year from Southern California and beyond. In a normal season, three people die in accidents or from natural causes at the resort. Last season, only two people died.

Known for its majestic vistas, pristine lakes and rugged, backcountry trails, Mammoth is an outdoor enthusiast's dream, where many go to escape the crime and crowds of more urban areas.

Over at Canyon Lodge, at the base of the mountain, customers Sunday morning said they would be more cautious on the slopes.

"Maybe I won't do the intermediate runs this trip," said Lynn Ablian, 29, a registered nurse from Anaheim who was snowboarding for the fifth time.

Her friend, Victoria Perez, 29, a registered nurse from Buena Park, said the accidents were making her consider buying a helmet.

"If I'm not comfortable," Perez said, "I'm not going to push it and go forward too hard."

At Ski Renter, a ski shop in the heart of Mammoth Lakes Village, technician Mike Wright said he had seen a run in helmet rentals among people who had heard about the deaths.

"People are a little more concerned," Wright said.

His colleague Austin Wise, who repairs skis, added: "It's just so many people died in a short amount of time. It's pretty scary."

The deaths underscore that skiing and snowboarding are inherently risky sports. During the 2003-04 season, according to the National Ski Areas Assn., 41 people died in skiing or snowboarding accidents nationwide.

The Mammoth deaths were unrelated to each other, officials said, adding that staff members who work on the slopes took the deaths particularly hard, especially that of ski patroller Sara Johanna Carlsson, 31, a native of Sweden. Some employees talked to a counselor provided by Mammoth management and others took time off work to grieve.

Online forums on Mammoth's website were abuzz over the weekend with ski enthusiasts' incredulity at what unfolded from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1. Posters traded information, and some tried to figure out how they could avoid similar fates.

"It's helpful to know what happened, to … warn ourselves and others and … to end the rumors/speculation that inevitably follows," one person wrote.

"R.I.P., mountain friends, your souls can rest in a beautiful place," another wrote.

So many deaths in such a short time "certainly gives us pause to reflect on whether or not something was wrong," said Gary Reitman, general manager for mountain operations. "But in reviewing all these accounts, it was made very clear that none of them had [anything] to do with the others."

The string of deaths began Jan. 26, when 16-year-old Benjamin Trees was skiing with a group of friends on an intermediate run. He took a jump too fast and missed the roughly 25-foot-wide landing, officials said.

Benjamin's parents aren't sure what went wrong, said George Bowen, a friend and family spokesman. Benjamin, an experienced skier, was wearing a helmet on the run, where a series of jumps were constructed.

All Benjamin's parents know is that their son "was not prone to taking exceptional risks," Bowen said.

There's still a list on the teen's bedroom wall of the 30 places he had wanted to visit before he died: Rome. Paris. Sydney, Australia. Germany.

"He loved adventure — not that he was a thrill-seeker," Bowen said.

Benjamin was a sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, where he founded his high school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bowen said.

The day after the teenager's death, Bronislaw Tanski, 39, a marketing representative from Laguna Niguel, was skiing with a group of friends on an intermediate trail when he lost control and hit a tree head-on. Officials later said he was traveling at an excessive speed.

Tanski, who never regained consciousness, was flown to Washoe Medical Center in Reno, where he died four days later. His wife and two young children were at his bedside.

His mother, Bonnie Tanski, said her son had gone to Mammoth with a group of friends for an annual trip. Her son, who learned to ski as a child growing up in the Sierra mountain town of Big Creek, liked speed, she said.

"He was going very fast," Bonnie Tanski said. "He hit a mogul and that twisted the ski on his left leg and he hit a tree, just straight on."

The next day, Jan. 28, Luther Sartor Jr., 61, was skiing with several other members of the Four Seasons West ski club, a group of African American skiers from Southern California, when he apparently became disoriented and failed to see a wall of rock in front of him, friends and family members said. He struck a 30-foot-high boulder straight on at full speed, said his friend Jerrold Smith, who was skiing with him.

Smith said he believed Sartor became disoriented in whiteout conditions caused by wind and snow in the bowl-like canyon, but resort officials said visibility was not a factor, based on photographs taken at the accident scene.

Yet Lynch said the weather was foul enough for the resort to close the gondola that carries visitors to the top of the mountain and two other chairlifts, because of strong winds and blowing snow.

A Los Angeles dentist and accomplished skier, Sartor "was always very athletic and really involved in adventurous-type activities," his daughter, Candice Sartor, said. Sartor and his wife, Gail, lived in Ladera Heights, where they raised their four children, who range in age from 16 to 33.

After two days of storms, Jan. 29, a Sunday, was bright, clear and sunny. James Ferguson, 63, and his lifelong friend Jan Flory, both members of the Fountain Valley Ski Club, rode the gondola to the top to take in the view.

"The Minarets poked out through a fabulous blue sky," Flory said, referring to a series of jagged peaks. "It was almost like you could touch them. It was absolutely beautiful."

They skied down the mountain several times that morning. About 11 a.m., they decided to head to the bottom to meet friends for lunch. Coming to a wide curve, Flory skied ahead of Ferguson and waited for him a short distance below.

When Ferguson didn't follow immediately, Flory asked two snowboarders who had stopped among some trees up the hill if they had seen her friend.

They said they could see a man farther up, resting. But when they said he was lying down, Flory knew something was wrong.

"I started yelling at them that he's a diabetic and he carries some pills, then I got on my cellphone and called 911," she said.

By the time the ski patrol arrived minutes later, the snowboarders had administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Ferguson. But it was too late. He had died of a massive heart attack, said Shannon Kendall, a spokeswoman for the Mono County Sheriff's Department.

"He died with his ski boots on," Flory said.

Ferguson had delivered water for Sparkletts for 35 years, while he and his wife, Sharyl, raised two sons in Garden Grove. In his spare time, he played golf, skied and fished, often with a close-knit group of friends he had known since elementary school.

"He was loved and liked by everyone. He had a huge unit of friends from work and golf," said his sister-in-law Jennifer McDonald.

Three days later, Carlsson was skiing off-duty in a desolate area just west of Twin Lakes near Bridgeport with two other Mammoth ski patrol members, Josh Feinberg, 30, and C.J. Pearson, 27.

At one point, the three decided to cross a steep slope one at a time, to avoid all three of them getting hurt should the snow slide. It was windy, and the trees were growing at an angle to the slope, indicating the area was prone to avalanches, said Sue Burak, a forecaster for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center, a nonprofit group based in Mammoth Lakes.

Feinberg was the first to go up and triggered a small avalanche, sending him down about 20 feet, Burak said. But that slide set off a second avalanche that swept Carlsson 600 feet through a glade of pine trees. Her back and one leg were broken, her head was injured and she was fading in and out of consciousness, Kendall said. Pearson was able to hold onto a tree.

"This is part of the deal for those of us that ski in the mountains, evaluating each slope as we come across it," Burak said. "It's about minimizing your risk. But there's a lot of unknowns there that even catch the most experienced."

Carlsson had applied for a job on the ski patrol after initially visiting the area as a ski photographer, Lynch said. Friends described Carlsson as a hard worker who was full of life.

"We're devastated," said Steve McCabe, a ski patrol supervisor.

An envelope marked "Johanna Carlsson Memorial Fund" was taped next to his desk.

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