Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-02-02
Submitted By: Mark Moore, NWAC
Place: Government Meadows
State: WA
Country: USA
Summary: 2 snowmobilers caught, buried, very lucky

The snowmobiler avalanche accident described by the two accounts below

occurred on 2/2/2000, near the Government Meadows area, about 10 miles to

the north-northeast of Crystal Mountain Ski Area.

Ancillary Weather and Avalanche Information from the NW Weather and

Avalanche Center

Avalanche and weather-wise--In the back country avalanche forecast issued at

8 AM on the 2nd, the NW Weather and Avalanche Center had forecast a

generally high avalanche danger above 4 to 5000 feet, with the main

avalanche threat expected from heavy dense wind slab overlying buried

surface hoar. The avalanche incident occurred a day after NWAC had issued an

avalanche warning for high to extreme danger. It also occurred immediately

after a widespread natural avalanche cycle on February 1st, with warming and

sustained heavy snow loading which stressed several buried weak layers and

resulted in closure of both US-2 Stevens Pass and I-90 Snoqualmie Pass for

much of the day. Although slow cooling and numerous natural avalanches had

helped to begin stabilizing some of the highly unstable snowpack observed on

Tuesday, Feb 1st, a significant danger of large human triggered slides

remained--especially on north through northeast exposure slopes showing no

evidence of recent avalanche activity.

Accident Investigation and narrative provided by Doug Blanchard, Crystal

Mountain Ski Patrol

On Wednesday Feb. 2, two snowmobliers were caught in an avalanche east of

the Cascade Crest in the Government Meadows area. The slide occurred near

noon at an elevation of 4800?, ran about 250? vertical into a gully at the

bottom of the drainage. The slide was initiated by the riders, had a crown

of 53 cm and propagated from the apex to a width of 300?

The circumstances surrounding the rescue are remarkable to say the least. As

the slide was triggered both riders tried to race their machines out of the

path of the avalanche. One rider described 3 waves of snow hitting him. The

first buried him up to his waist, the second up to his neck and the third

swept over his head. He ended up with a sapling near his hands and by

shaking it, he was able to create an air pocket and establish enough freedom

of movement to begin digging himself out. After nearly half an hour he

extracted himself and spent the next hour searching for his buddy. Having no

success he began hiking out. After 2 hours he met another group of riders

and told them of the buried rider. This party had a cell phone and called

911. In the meantime a single rider, Troy, had come upon a set of boot

tracks leading out of the drainage on a snowmobile track. He assumed someone

had stuck their machine in deep snow and hiked out. He continued riding

until he came across one of the party that had been notified by the survivor

and was told they were searching for a set of boot tracks out of the

avalanche. Troy said he could lead the other guy to the boot tracks and they

rode over to the drop into the drainage. They stopped and discussed riding

down and the one searcher thought his Phazer would get stuck. Troy had a

powerful machine with 2" paddles and thought he could get in and out. He

rode down to where he identified the avalanche path and debris and began to

search. At this point some of the information is vague.

After searching the area he established voice contact with the other party

and still couldn?t locate him. The next thing to occur was a helmet which

was spotted at the surface. Troy went over to the helmet and found a hole

with the other victim's head about 1.5 feet below the surface. He was

standing and had lost both his boots and socks trying to climb up the hole.

Troy pulled him out of the hole, wrapped his exposed extremities in some

material and drove him out to Government Meadows where a MAST helicopter

transported him to Madigan Army Hospital . His burial time was over 5 hours

but he had ripped his face shield off his helmet and had used it to dig and

scrape his hole to get to the surface. When he was buried his machine had

been running full throttle and he was unable to shut it off. At one point he

became very concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning but it is unclear if

he ever lost consciousness or how long the machine kept running. We are

waiting for word back from Madigan on his condition.

A visit to the site the day after the incident (2/3/2000) gave us a chance

to get some snow data from a natural avalanche of similar aspect and

elevation but less exposed to the hazard approaching the site. The snowpack

was 260 cm to the ground. At the Crystal study plot the previous two days we

?d received 18" of new at 4500? and 2.66 water equivalent. There had been a

brief period of rain at the base but we found no crust in the new snow at

the site. A shear test above the fracture line produced a very easy shear at

53 cm. on 4 to 5 mm surface hoar. The slab above was a 4 finger hardness

layer of heavily rimed crystal and graupel with a wind packed surface. Our

shear test was done on a 32 degree slope with a north aspect . The slope

that caught the snowmobilers was 38 degrees.

On Friday, 2/4/2000, the sheriff and Forest Service personnel visited the

site prior to a snowmobile rally this weekend. Upon arriving at the site

they found 2 snowmobile tracks into another slide, this time with exit

tracks. This is the slope that kept us from accessing the burial site on

Thursday. They said debris had flooded the bottom of the drainage. Two more

naturals were observed further to the east. Both were similar aspect and


A recovery effort for the buried snowmobiles was scheduled for this weekend.

The rider who survived the long burial said he was going to sell all his

equipment after 28 years of riding. The previous weekend Troy had released

another avalanche from a ridgetop on the west side of Mt. Rainier. He jumped

off his machine and slid down the slope behind it and spent the next 9 hours

digging out his machine.

Article from the Tacoma News Tribune, 2/4/2000

Snowmobiler buried in avalanche 'just started praying ... '

Puyallup man digs 5 hours to free himself after partner goes for help

02/04/2000 -Written by Hector Castro <>; --Tacoma

News Tribune Staff

Snow from the steep slope above them slid toward Bill Lewis and Ken Hough,

but neither thought much of it Wednesday as they snowmobiled near

Greenwater. Hough wasn't alarmed even when a wave of snow swamped his

snowmobile and pinned his feet. Or when a second wave covered him, letting

enough light through that he knew it wasn't deep. Then the third wave hit.

"It was an earth quaking, thunderous noise that made everything go dark and

just compressed all the snow around me like concrete," the 35-year-old

Eatonville man recalled Thursday.

Nearby, Lewis, 30, also was buried in the avalanche that struck the two

about 12:30 p.m. as they rode in a valley near Naches Pass. Lewis freed

himself from a foot of snow on top of him in about 20 minutes. "I was so

exhausted," the Puyallup man said. "I just lay on top of the snow." Trapped

under much deeper snow, Hough dug for five hours before he was clear, long

after his companion and rescuers thought he was dead. "I was thinking, 'What

am I going to tell his family?' " Lewis said.

The two friends and business partners - they own BNK Homes in Puyallup -

have been snowmobiling together for two years. Hough has been an avid

snowmobiler for 28 years. Wednesday, they arrived at Government Meadows in

Hough's truck, hauling a trailer loaded with four snowmobiles, including two

new models they each bought specifically for off-trail snowmobiling. Riding

the new snowmobiles, the two were cruising slowly through a ravine bounded

by steep sides when the slide buried them.

"I just started praying for everything I was worth," Lewis said Thursday. "I

wanted out of there so bad." During his struggle to free himself, Lewis kept

hollering for his friend, assuming Hough had avoided the slide. Lewis last

saw Hough riding at full throttle, fighting to avoid the oncoming snow.

"That sled was screaming as loud as it could," Lewis said. "He was trying to

outrun it."

But Lewis soon realized Hough had been buried. He started to dig, trying

different spots for the next hour in a futile attempt to find his friend.

Hough's snowmobile kept running for at least 15 minutes, but Lewis heard

nothing. Then he made the painful decision to leave Hough behind and go for

help. Crawling up the slope, it took more than two hours for Lewis to make

it through often waist-deep snow and reach a trail. "I knew it was getting

dark soon and it was already starting to snow," Lewis said. "I was at least

11 to 12 miles from the truck, then I heard a snowmobile."

Exhausted, Lewis ran to an intersection in the trail where he met a group of

snowmobilers. Hearing what had happened, one of the group, Troy Larson,

raced to the area where the avalanche had occurred. Lewis went with the

others to get help. They ran into more snowmobilers, one of whom had a cell

phone and called for help. The group then went to the snow park where Hough

had left his truck and waited for rescuers. By then it was after 4:30 p.m.

Hough had spent the hours digging his way out - fighting the snow, the lack

of air, the fumes his snowmobile and despair. "I thought about scratching

some stuff in the snow, scratching out my last will and testament," Hough


Mostly, he thought of his fiance and his four children. "I wasn't going to

let them down," Hough said. "I was going to fight until there was nothing


Using his hands, his helmet visor and some tubes torn from the helmet, Hough

dug a small hole to the surface. It was another battle to free his body

enough to get one foot on top of his snowmobile. Hough was just reaching the

surface when Larson reached him. "I will never forget looking up through

this little hole and seeing this face," Hough said. "He kind of had a grin

on his face and big eyes of surprise. That was a good thing to see."

When Larson helped Hough out, the exhausted snowmobiler was missing his

boots and a sock. Other snowmobilers arrived and shared their boots, their

socks and their coats with Hough. A helicopter flew him to Madigan Army

Medical Center, where he was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Hough

spent Thursday resting at home. He and Lewis say they are through with

snowmobiles. "I made a lot of promises in that hole," Hough said. "One was

that I wasn't going to be selfish with my time and risk my life. The

snowmobiles are going bye-bye and we're going to buy a nice camp trailer."