Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2002-03-09
Submitted By: Craig Gordon UAC
Place: Wasatch Plateau, located in Central Utah
State: UT
Country: USA
Summary: 2 seperate close calls in same area in 2 days

Snowmobilers were involved in two separate `close calls` this weekend on

the Wasatch Plateau, located in Central Utah. The first incident

occurred on Saturday 3-9-02. Two snowmobilers were "high marking" a

slope at the same time when an avalanche propagated above the rider

highest on the slope. He was able to outrun the slide, though his buddy,

who was mid-slope, was caught and buried with his hand sticking out of

the snow. His partner saw the visual clue and dug him out in about 5

minutes. The group was equipped with beacons and shovels. They returned

to their vehicle where they met up with a local S&R group and commented

on how happy they were to have all the proper rescue equipment. Details

as to location and avalanche particulars are vague.

The second burial occurred on Sunday 3-10-02. A group of 5 riders were

"ridge hopping" to ride a favorite and familiar bowl in the Potters Pond

area. They had been riding the steep (and heavily wind loaded bowls) for

a while without incident, when they decided to have lunch at approx.

13:25 hrs. One of the riders parked in what he thought was a safe

location. After turning off his machine and removing his helmet and

gloves, three other members of the party joined him. The last rider

rider made one more hill climb and as he turned away from the slope, a

large slide began to zipper across the bowl they had been riding. He saw

the slide and was able to outrun it. The other three, who still had

their machines running, saw the slide coming and quickly got out of the

way. The fellow who had removed his helmet and gloves tried to get his

machine started but failed in his attempts and was overcome by the

avalanche. His partners regrouped, turned their beacons to "receive" and

started searching. However it didn't take long before they realized that

their buried partners beacon wasn't sending a signal.(It turns out that

he had turned it on at the trailhead, though inadvertently left it in

his truck.) One member of the party used a cell phone to call "life

flight" with GPS co-ordinates. As the rest of the group walked the toe

of the debris looking for clues, one of the rescuers stepped on the

buried riders hand, which was barely under the snows' surface. He had

been buried vertically, approx. 6' with a hand reaching for the sky.

When they uncovered his face he was blue and not breathing, though once

some snow was removed from his chest he took a big breath. Total burial

time was 20 minutes. They warmed him up with space blankets and a fire

and after excavating his machine he rode from the scene. The avalanche

was a HS-AV-3-O. The crown averaged 4'-5' in depth, was 1,200'-1,500'

wide, and ran for 600-700 vertical feet.

The Wasatch Plateau, as well as much of Utah, has had an atypically

shallow snowpack this season. The region experienced several sporadic

and pockety avalanche cycles, and in between small storms the snowpack

continued to weaken. A two-day storm system starting on 3-7 deposited

20" of snow with 2.5" of water, coupled with strong southwest, west, and

northwest winds. On the 8th visibility was marginal at best though when

we were able to get a glimpse around, it was evident avalanches were

occurring in unusual places. The USFS Utah Avalanche Center issues

weekend and holiday avalanche advisories for the Wasatch Plateau, which

is primarily used by snowmobilers. On the 9th the advisory I issued

called for a "Considerable" danger on all slopes above 9,000', steeper

than 35 degrees. The 9th dawned clear and before teaching an avalanche

awareness class to the local S&R, my partner Eric Trenbeath and I drove

around looking at the carnage. Throughout the range many class 2 and 3

natural, hard slab avalanches took place. The common theme was slopes

above 9,000', facing northwest through east, on slopes in the 35-38

degree range. Crowns were 2.5' to 4' deep, up to 1,000' wide, and

propagated mid slope and in unusual places. I continued to call the

danger "Considerable" on the 10th. Neither group had checked the

advisory. On an interesting note, I talked in length with a member of

the 3-10 party and asked if they had seen all of the natural activity in

the area. He responded that they had but the area they were going to

"had a lot of old tracks in it". This possibly could have led to a false

sense of security. This group did approach the slope with caution,

riding one at a time and watching at the bottom of the slope in what

they thought was a safe area. They were equipped with a plethora of

gear: beacons, shovels, probes, cell phones, and a GPS. The group

"leader" also acknowledged they would probably take advantage of the

free snowmobile specific avalanche education the UAC provides.

Craig Gordon- Avalanche Forecaster- USFS Utah Avalanche Center