Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: Bob Moore; USFS Tahoe National Forest
Place: Lake Mary area, near the Tahoe-Donner summit
Summary: 3 caught, 1 buried and killed
THREE SURVIVE, ONE DIE IN LENGTHY AVALANCHE BURIAL
At dusk and in near blizzard conditions on February 6, 1999, four people were totally buried in an avalanche
for more than three hours, possibly as much as five hours. One person finally was able to dig himself out and
with the aid of people staying at a nearby cabin located and dug out the others. Fire department and ski patrol
rescuers reached the scene, administered first aid and evacuated the victims. One was non-breathing at the
scene and was later determined to have died of cardiac arrest secondary to hypothermia.
The victim, Malcolm Hart (age 21), and his three friends, Harry Eichelberger (21), Derek Lerch (22), and
Marissa Nelson (20) were snow playing on the Donner Summit area. on Saturday, February 6, 1999. The
newspaper accounts report the group was staying at a family cabin within 1/4 mile of Lake Mary. They
presumably were at one of the cabins between Donner Ski Ranch and A.S.I. or on Lake Mary Road.
They apparently decided to do some more sledding and climbed the steep slope leading up to a P.G.&E
switching station located on the unplowed Lake Mary Road, four abreast. The switching station sits on a
knoll, with a short, steep slope with an east aspect, which drops down to the shore of Lake Mary. The slope
is described as approximately 70 feet in length and with a 60% grade. The slope is subject to heavy wind
loading with the prevailing southwest storm winds and forms a large cornice at the crest. Between one and
two feet of heavy, wet snow had fallen that day, with densities from 10 to 20%. Winds were from the SW
30-40 with gusts 60+ and temps are estimated, at the time of the incident, to be 28-30 and lowering.
The slope failed when the group was some 40 feet up, running some 50 feet in width and a slide path only
40?feet long, running out to the lake. Eichelberger and Lerch said they were thrown over on their backs; Hart
and Nelson were found face down. Lerch said he was able to get an arm up and his hand was above the snow
surface. The others were totally buried. Lerch was able to move his arm enough to create an air hole.
Eichelberger said he was totally pinned, but with a small airspace around his mouth and nose. He said he ate
snow to enlarge the space. His yells were heard by Lerch who was able to move one arm enough to punch a
hole through and touch Lerch under the snow. Presumably both of them were able to get enough air via the air
hole Lerch had to the surface. Neither knew where Hart and Nelson were. Several hours passed. Sometime
around 9:00 p.m. Eichelberger decided he had to claw his way out or he would die and was finally able to
break free. He tried unsuccessfully to dig out Lerch and decided to go for help. He saw the lights of the
Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) cabin across the lake and made his way there through the heavy snow. He
returned to the accident site with several people from the DOC, while they called 9-1-1 from the cabin and
initiated the public safety rescue.
Donner Summit Fire Department was toned out for an avalanche rescue at a location near Alpine Skills
Institute at approximately 10:10 p.m. A hasty search team response was dispatched on snowmobiles to the
accident scene consisting of eight fire department and Sugar Bowl ski patrol personnel, with one avalanche
dog, supported by a Sugar Bowl grooming machine. In the meantime, the 15 people who were staying at the
DOC cabin organized a rescue team, armed with shovels and broom handles for probes. By the time the fire
department rescue team arrived, Hart and Nelson had been found and dug out. Hart was reported to have
been responsive when first uncovered, but shortly thereafter was determined to have no ascertainable pulse
and was no longer breathing. Jake Palmer, from the S.B. patrol, initiated CPR, and the fire department
paramedic attempted advanced life support resuscitation. Hart was evacuated to the command post, and then
transported in the blizzard conditions, with continuing efforts at resuscitation, to Tahoe Forest Hospital. The
E.R. staff continued resuscitation until 3:30 a.m. when he was pronounced.
Nelson was extremely hypothermic at the scene, with a core temperature later determined to be 76 F., and
was responsive to painful stimulus only. She was transported to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee via ground
ambulance. The successful field interventions reversed the fall in her body temperature and she was released
from the hospital the next day in good condition, but with little memory of her ordeal. Lerch and Eichelberger
were in good health at the scene, all things considered, but were transported to the hospital later that night by
fire department ambulance in order to be with their friends.
An avalanche warning for HIGH had been posted at 6:00 pm.
Report Narrative prepared by Steve Lieberman, Assistant Chief DSFD.