Dramatic video from the backcountry of Lake Tahoe in Northern California shows a skier triggering an avalanche, getting buried, and being saved by bumbling rescuers who were ill-equipped and inexperienced. The video, taken from the helmet camera of the primary rescuer, who starts the rescue by inexplicably taking off his gloves, is real time, so the entire 10-minute rescue is shown. A bit long, but the suspense and drama, and the scary example of how being trapped in snow is like being in cement is worth the time. Watch, and pick out the mistakes (Warning: barely noticeable expletive):
Fortunately, the skier managed to punch a hand through the snow and cleared his face. Otherwise, he was completely helpless.
The video was posted on the Sierra Avalanche Center’s website last week and just recently started making the rounds on ski sites and forums, where observers have been merciless in critiquing the incident.
“Be prepared or don’t go,” one commenter wrote on UnofficialNetworks.com. “His friend is lucky to be alive. What a wreck to watch, give me your beacon!! You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“And why [...] is everybody else just standing around?” another asked.
“Love the part where the buried victim is digging out himself while his buddy is trying to figure out if he should put on gloves or not,” one wrote.
The skier who was caught in the avalanche took full responsibility for the incident and admitted to mistakes being made, including his taking a novice group into the backcountry, not equipping all party members with rescue gear, going above a ridgeline prone to slides, and skiing an ill-advised route that triggered the avalanche.
But he also defended the rescuer with the helmet cam. His explanation was posted on the avalanche report at Sierra Avalanche Center:
“I know that our party, the party involved in the December 29th incident on Echo Peak, made numerous mistakes. I chose to make the helmet cam video available to Sierra Avalanche Center so that others could learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. As the leader of the party, I take full credit for all of the mistakes and want to document what I’ve learned from them. [...]
“Much has been made on various forums about the way that the skier with the helmet cam handled the rescue. He has been flamed for taking his gloves off, for telling the female skier with the beacon to take her time in transitioning the gear to him, for not putting the handle in the shovel, ad infinitum. The truth is, I am proud of the way he, a novice at avalanche rescue, handled the situation. He knew that the female skier was panicking and had to keep her calm. He knew that the whole party shouldn’t descend to the burial site. He left two people on the ridge to watch the hangfire. Then he descended to the burial site with a partner, one at a time, in a controlled manner.
“In debriefing after the incident, we discussed what he could have done differently. It goes without saying that he should have left his gloves on. Other than that, there are two possible scenarios.
“First scenario: Once the skier in the black jacket had located my glove above the debris, the one unburied probe and beacon should have been left on the ridge. That way a beacon/probe search could have been initiated in the case of a secondary avalanche burying the rescue party.
“Second scenario: My glove was located above the debris, but what if my hand wasn’t in it? Seen from 100 meters away, it was impossible to tell. If the beacon and probe were left on the ridge, that would have led to additional delays in getting the rescue gear to the burial and would have put one more skier in the path of a secondary release.”
He also takes blame for the unassembled shovel, saying he should have ensured the entire group knew where the rescue gear was located. And he admits the primary rescuer should have relinquished his shoveling duties once his hands started to freeze.
All are lessons to be learned for those intending to travel into what can be very dangerous backcountry.