Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-01-16
Submitted By: Mark Moore NWAC
Place: Crystal Mountain Ski Area
State: WA
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 2 skiers in closed area, 1 caught buried and killed

Copyright 1999 The Seattle Times Company--Local News : Tuesday, January 18, 2000

Skier watched as avalanche at Crystal Mountain swept away his friend

by Mark Rahner, Seattle Times staff reporter

A day after seeing his friend and colleague, Seattle architect Gordon McWilliams, disappear in a Crystal Mountain avalanche, John Christiansen repeated the words with a hollow sound: "We knew the risks." The words, thick with shellshocked resignation, came after watching a rescue dog find McWilliams' buried body, and after spending time yesterday with his widow and two teenage children. McWilliams, 50, and Christiansen, 42, of Bellevue, had hiked up 1,000 feet and through trees into an area of the ski resort closed because of high winds. The two experienced outdoorsmen had taken a lunch break atop the Exterminator run before they trudged on to the Snag Chutes area near Iceberg Ridge. McWilliams was an expert skier in top condition who had worked as a ski patroller as a young man. "We knew the risks - not only the risk of avalanche, but it was quite windy and visibility was poor," Christiansen said. "We talked about that at some length." After watching other skiers go past without triggering anything, the two agreed to go down one at a time about 1:30 p.m. McWilliams went first; Christiansen was stopped above him and to the left 20 or 30 feet, keeping watch. "Gordon was the leader and he went off first, and was caught in a very large avalanche, a wind-blown slab" up to 70 yards across and a couple of feet deep, Christiansen said. "I lost sight of him. I didn't realize how big a slide this was, and was hopeful that he had either skied out of it or had been able to stay on the surface or out of the slide. "I spent some time searching for him, hoping that he had either skied down a ways and was hiking back to me, or was reporting me missing down below. I was hoping that ..." Christiansen said, his voice trailing off. The avalanche dog found McWilliams almost two hours later, at 3:25 p.m., after 40 rescue personnel had been dispatched to conduct a methodical grid search of the area. A doctor on the ski patrol pronounced him dead at the scene. Searching for fresh powder Crystal Mountain spokeswoman Stacy Schuster said the restricted area had been controlled for avalanches - with explosive charges to knock loose the accumulated snow - around 5 a.m. But it was filled in with snow again by the time McWilliams and Christiansen got there. The day after McWilliams' death, 6,000 skiers were back on Crystal Mountain's slopes, a percentage of them thrill-seekers who ignore posted warnings and area closures in their search for virgin powder. "I wouldn't say routinely," Schuster said. "But there are quite a few skiers out there who really love fresh powder." And there's only so much a ski resort can do to protect people. Resort operators routinely post signs warning skiers to stay out of dangerous areas. Skiers also are warned on their lift tickets that they assume risks if they venture outside protected areas. "We have a release of liability on the lift ticket that you purchase," Schuster said. "When you buy that ticket, you assume some risk. The ski areas do everything possible to avoid any accident." On Sunday, the chair lift to Snag Chutes was closed. "But what's wild about this is they were backcountry skiers, and they were good skiers. These weren't your average weekend warriors," Schuster said. "I have no idea why they went up there. It was really unfortunate, and everyone up here is really upset." 'An unfortunate reality' Arlan Collins, another friend and colleague of McWilliams' at CNA Architecture in Bellevue, recalled him as "a 100 percent on-all-the-time guy." Said Collins, "He was very athletic ... He swam. He was a world-class skier, probably one of the best. Everything he did, he did full-out." As an architect, McWilliams specialized in biomedical laboratories and other high-tech facilities. With an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and a master's from the University of Pennsylvania, he had come from a Portland, Ore., firm in 1995 to live on Capitol Hill with his wife, Mary, and children Angus and Kate. He was known as a direct-speaking man and served on the King County Arts Commission. He also involved himself in a number of philanthropic events, his friends said. "He would often come back from fund-raisers where they would have door prizes, and he would pass those on to me for my kids," Christiansen recalled. Christiansen said he has been struggling to glean some reason out of what happened Sunday, some lesson to hang onto. "I've been skiing and ski mountaineering since I was a boy, and I read the papers, and I read about events like this. And often, people want to know why, and what went wrong, and who's at fault," he said. "Both Gordon and I love the out-of-doors, and love the experience of being immersed in that environment," he said. "And it's an unfortunate reality that there's a risk that you take in that sort of activity. And Gordon paid the ultimate price."

Preliminary Summary and Detailed Reports--Avalanche Fatality

January 16, 2000 at Crystal Mountain Ski Area, WA

News media incident report courtesy Crystal Mountain Resort

Accident Summary--At 1:30 PM on Sunday, January 16, 2000, the Crystal

Mountain Ski Patrol was notified that an avalanche occurred and that two

skiers had been sighted in the area just prior to the slide. Patrol

responded with a search team just to the right of an area known as Snag

Chutes. This area was controlled for avalanches in the morning. It is

located off a lift that was closed the entire day due to high winds. The

two skiers had climbed about 1000 vertical feet up to ski the steep powder

run. The first skier witnessed his friend getting caught in the avalanche.

He immediately began searching for his friend.

At approximately 1:40 PM the initial search team arrived at the site. They

noticed the fracture line of a large avalanche and conducted a probe and

beacon search. Over the next 30 minutes, 40 additional rescue personnel

and three avalanche dogs began searching the large site. At 3:25 PM, a

Crystal Mountain avalanche dog located the missing skier. The skier was not

wearing an avalanche beacon.

The search and rescue team recovered the body and began advanced life

support. A Ski Patrol physician pronounced the skier dead at the scene.

Trauma is a suspected cause of death but is not confirmed at this time.

Detailed Accident Report--Preliminary

Report prepared by Paul Baugher, Professional Ski Patrol Director and Mark

Moore, NWAC

Weather conditions at Crystal Mountain on Sunday morning, January 16, 2000,

could best be described as horrible on the upper mountain and very stormy

and windy on the lower mountain. In fact, high winds had prevented opening

of all upper mountain lifts to the public, including the Rainier Express

Chair, Green Valley and High Campbell. Only High Campbell had been run very

early in the morning for avalanche control; other area avalanche control had

been conducted by snow cat. However weather conditions had deteriorated

significantly by the expected time of ski area opening and no upper lifts

were opened. At approximately noon, the wind holds for all upper lifts were

continuing and a ski patroller stationed near the top of Chair 1 (Miner's

Basin Lift) noticed several skiers climbing up the Iceberg Gulch run to

access higher terrain which was normally serviced by the closed Rainier

Express Chair. The patroller yelled at the party, warning of avalanche

danger and trying to turn the party around, but the party of two failed to

descend. Later witness interviews indicated that both members were

experienced skiers and back-country skiers. One member of the party had

also been a ski patroller at an eastern US ski area and both members of the

party owned avalanche beacons but were not wearing them at the time. Upon

reaching the knob summit above the Snag Chutes (also known as Exterminator),

the skiers apparently discussed the avalanche danger and decided to descend

the slope one at a time.

The survivor skied a short way down the northern flank of what was soon to

become the slide path and stopped after losing sight of his partner. Trying

to re-establish contact with his partner, he started to ski downhill again

when he saw his partner come by him caught in a slide. From the survivor's

description and reconstruction of the configuration of the actual avalanche,

it is probable that the victim triggered the slide which caught him, with

the initial fracture releasing about 200 vertical feet above him.

Following the avalanche which descended quickly downslope, the surviving

party member stayed on site to search for his friend.

In the meantime, three ski area employees were sent down from mountain top

due to expected continued closure of the mountain top summit

house/restaurant. Due to the perceived avalanche danger, they were

instructed to ski down an intermediate ski run--Lucky Shot. However, they

instead skied and boarded toward Snag Chutes, and were in position to

observe the avalanche from the extreme northern flank . Although they did

not see anyone caught in the slide, they were aware of other skiers in the

area. After the avalanche, they proceeded downhill toward the base of the

ski area, rode the lift up to the midway area, thereupon informing a

patroller stationed on top of the slide they had witnessed, as well as the

fact that they had seen other skiers in the area. At this time, around

1:30 PM, the Patrol Director and Snow Safety Director were enroute to

mountaintop via snowcat to re-evaluate the avalanche danger for further

control work if the winds moderated and allowed for an afternoon opening.

Upon receiving the radio report of an avalanche, two patrollers (including

the Patrol Director) immediately departed for the Snag Chutes area, and

requested the dispatch of additional avalanche rescue resources. Arriving

at the site in poor visibility, blowing and drifting snow, and sustained

high winds, they identified the fracture line and assessed remaining

avalanche danger before proceeding downhill to begin an initial search.

Upon skiing downhill, they encountered the surviving member of the ski party

still looking for his friend.

Shortly thereafter, three avalanche dogs and approximately 40 other rescue

personnel arrived on the scene and began working the large avalanche path,

searching for surface clues, talking further with the eyewitness and probing

likely burial sites of deposition. (It should be mentioned that at

approximately this same time, another avalanche accident report was received

by the Ski Patrol, with this incident apparently occurring across the valley

on a slope which loads under similar wind patterns. As it turned out, this

avalanche caught. injured and partially buried one skier, with the skier

triggered slide running about 6-800 vertical. Further ski patrollers were

dispensed to this site, with this skier brought back to the base after

becoming hypothermic, alive but with a probable broken leg--more details to

follow). The avalanche path and runout included many acres of potential

burial locations, but the main search effort was concentrated in the

deceleration zone of the avalanche within a dense band of cedar trees at

about the 5200 ft level. Meanwhile, several ski area personnel canvassed

the base of the ski area to hopefully find that the potential victim had

survived the avalanche and was waiting for his friend near the base. Also,

during this time, the survivor was recycled to the top of the avalanche path

to once again identify the last seen area, which could hopefully yield more

specific information and quicken the search. Finally, at about 3:25 PM,

approximately the 8th dog alert yielded a probe strike and subsequent

recovery of the victim. The victim was buried with head downslope, with his

head about 3.5 feet beneath the snow surface and the feet and two feet down.

There was no apparent ice mask of snow in the mouth or throat, and the

victim was pulseless. It was also readily apparent that the victim had

suffered multiple blunt trauma injuries as he was carried through this

heavily treed path. Life support procedures were immediately applied

including airway ventilation and CPR. A ski patrol doctor subsequently

pronounced the victim dead at the scene and a subsequent autopsy confirmed

that blunt trauma injury was the cause of death.

Rescue efforts continued for another hour since it was unclear if anyone

else had been caught. However, after finishing exhaustive search efforts

with dogs and probers, and receving no further reports of missing

recreationists in the ski area, the search and rescue effort was concluded

in impending darkness at about 4:30 PM.

Ancillary Site, Snowpack and Weather Information:

It is estimated that the slide initially released at approximately the 6200

ft level on an east northeast facing slope, and traveled approximately 1000

vertical feet, classified as a HS-AS-3. Slope angles measured just above

the fracture lines and on the bed surface were approximately 38 degrees.

Fracture line depths ranged from less than a foot on the northern flanks of

the slide up to 2-4 feet near the top and south flanks of the slide.

Increasingly strong winds were in evidence throughout the area from early

morning up through the time of the incident. Mountain top winds measured

near the top of the Rainier Express Chair (at about the 6800 ft level)

increased from around 20-30 with gusts to 40 at 6 AM to 30-50 mph average

and gusts to over 70 around mid-day. Wind gusts over 100 mph were also

recorded at the breakover tower on Rainier Express around mid-day. At the

top of the nearby White Pass ski area, wind gusts of over 110 mph were

recorded between noon and 2 PM.

Temperatures were also rising during the morning and early afternoon,

increasing from 26 deg F at 6 AM PST near the base of the ski area to 31 deg

F at 1 PM PST.

In response to these weather conditions, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche

Center had issued an Avalanche Warning for an increase in the avalanche

danger Sunday, becoming high above 4000 feet and considerable below Sunday

afternoon and evening--outside of developed ski areas and highways. Such a

trend for increasing danger Sunday was also indicated in the avalanche

danger forecast issued on Saturday