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California

1 killed, another injured in avalanche near Lake Tahoe, officials say

A skier navigates a run at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe in 2016.
A skier navigates a run at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe in 2016.
(Squaw Valley Resort)

A skier was killed and another seriously injured Friday morning when an avalanche sent snow barreling down the mountain at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort just west of Lake Tahoe, authorities said.

Placer County sheriff’s deputies responded to the resort, above the Subway ski run, about 10:30 a.m. after they received a report of an avalanche, Sgt. Mike Powers said.

Cole Comstock, 34, was killed, the Placer County sheriff wrote on Twitter. Comstock lived in Blairsden, about 90 miles east of Chico. A second man suffered severe injuries to his lower body and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, according to authorities and a statement from the ski resort.

Search and rescue crews and avalanche dogs scoured the mountain for more than an hour. They were called off about 1 p.m. after confirming there were no additional victims, the Placer County sheriff said.

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“This is an area of the resort that’s an advanced ski area, and at this point, there’s no reason to believe that any other areas of the resort or Alpine Meadows is in jeopardy,” Powers said. The cause of the avalanche was unclear as of Friday afternoon, the resort said.

“The entire Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows team, including all of the first responders, extend their deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the deceased. We are working closely with the families of all the affected individuals to ensure their continued care,” the resort wrote in a statement.

The Sierra Avalanche Center rated avalanche conditions Friday as “considerable” for all elevations. The center noted that a new layer of snow from Thursday’s storm brought a high degree of uncertainty to snowpack stability.

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Edan Weishahn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, said up to 2 feet of snow had fallen in the Sierra Nevada near the resort over the past day. It is not clear what caused the avalanche, but the avalanche center reported “significant drifting of new snow” near and above the tree line Friday.

Deadly avalanches are not unprecedented at Alpine Meadows. In March 1982, a massive avalanche hit the Summit Chairlift Terminal building, the main ski lodge, several small buildings and two chairlifts, and buried the resort’s parking lot under at least 10 feet of snow. Seven people were killed.

Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the most dangerous avalanche is a “slab avalanche,” when a large, cohesive piece of snow breaks off and slides into a valley. “That snow is much denser, much harder than most people think,” he said. “It sort of freezes you in place. You can’t move at all, and that’s what’s so dangerous about it.”

When a person is buried in an avalanche, with his or her airway blocked entirely, “you have four to six minutes before you start sustaining permanent damage,” Greene said. In North America, 25% of people killed in avalanches die from trauma and nearly 75% from asphyxiation, he said. “If you can’t get our exhalation away from you, you’re breathing in your carbon dioxide,” he said. “It’s like breathing with a paper bag over your head.” A small percentage of people die from hypothermia, he said.

Greene emphasized that if skiers pay attention to closures, follow the ski area’s rules and stick to open areas, which are patrolled and closely monitored for avalanches, a deadly avalanche is a rare occurrence. As a precaution, however, skiers can make themselves “searchable,” he said, by wearing Recco reflectors on their clothing and carrying avalanche transceivers, which help search and rescue teams find people buried in snow.


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