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Two skiers killed, five rescued in aftermath of Silver Mountain avalanche

Skiers walk away from Silver Mountain after an avalanche claimed the life of one person and involved four others on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Ski patrol searches for another missing skier Wednesday in aftermath of deadly Silver Mountain avalanche

KELLOGG – Two skiers died and five were rescued after an avalanche swept down two inbounds ski runs on Wardner Peak at Silver Mountain Tuesday morning.

While much of the search-and-rescue was completed by the afternoon, Silver Mountain Ski Patrol found an additional person buried in the avalanche later in the evening. That skier was transported to Shoshone Medical Center in an unknown condition, but the Shoshone News-Press later reported that skier died.

“Indications are all skiers are now accounted for,” said Gus Colburn in a statement emailed at 8:30 p.m.

While the ski day ended in tragedy, it opened optimistically, with skiers flocking to the mountain after reports that 13 inches of snow had fallen at the ski area since it was last open.

As it continued to snow, a long line developed in front of the gondola to the ski area before the resort opened. The powder was knee-deep walking out of the lodge, skiers said.

“That’s what we live for,” said Dolph Hoch, a regular at the mountain for 15 years and a Kellogg local who skis whenever there’s fresh snow.

The snow on Tuesday was deep, heavy and wet, causing concern among some about avalanche-type conditions. People said they heard resort crews blasting the area around Wardner Peak with explosives, a standard element of avalanche control, throughout the morning.

People have to ski a traverse run and hike a few hundred yards from a chair lift to get to the top of the nearly vertical 6,200-foot peak. From there they gain access to a number of expert-level runs.

“If you’re looking for untouched powder,” said Silver Mountain regular Bruce Rosenoff, “that’s the place to go.”

The peak had been open less than an hour before the avalanche swept up at least five skiers and buried them.

Skiers coming off the mountain in the afternoon who heard about the avalanche said they weren’t privy to any warnings or guidelines about potential avalanche conditions around the mountain. But the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center issued an avalanche warning Tuesday morning for the Silver Valley region, citing high risk due to “rapid loading with new snow and wind slabs over the buried persistent weak layers.” The center advised against travel in avalanche terrain.

“I thought conditions were kind of sketchy,” said Rosenoff, 72, who has been skiing at the mountain since Jackass Ski Bowl opened in January 1968 at Wardner Peak. “I was careful where I was gonna go.”

He was involved in an avalanche at the same peak in 1980 under similar conditions.

“New snow on a hard base,” Rosenoff said, meaning the top layer of snow was unstable.

He said every avalanche is different and couldn’t guess what the group involved in Tuesday’s experienced.

“Mine was just like somebody pulled a carpet out from under you,” Rosenoff said. “It seems like 60 mph, but it’s not. And you’re tumbling.”

He said he was lucky to come out of the snow unburied. Still, he continued to frequent that spot for years – the skiing is worth it, he said.

Rosenoff said he watched from a distance as a crew of around 50, made up of volunteers and professional search-and-rescue personnel, stood shoulder-to-shoulder probing the snow with poles about 10 feet long.

“If you think you hit someone (buried), start digging like a mad man,” said Hoch, the mountain regular, who rushed to the avalanche scene after finishing a run. “You’re digging to the end of that pole.”

The avalanche didn’t look like it started at the top of the peak, Rosenoff said, but closer to about 100 yards from the top.

One of the skiers involved in the avalanche was only partially buried and quickly freed, according to volunteers who helped with the search. She helped officials identify where the others in her group might have been and jumped in line to probe the snow.

Most avalanche survivors are dug out within 15 to 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Forest Service. For victims buried longer than 30 minutes, chances of survival are 30%, according to data from Elsevier, an information-analytics business. The National Snow and Ice Data Center says U.S. statistics show people buried longer than 45 minutes rarely live.

Crews searched for approximately 45 more minutes to find the second person, who was trapped 10 or 12 feet deep, and another 20 minutes to find a third, three people who helped with the search were told. One volunteer said he saw both people responsive after their rescue, and the ski resort said they had minor injuries.

One man, in his excitement about being found, yelled, “Yeah!” for several minutes after his rescue, search volunteers said.

A fourth person was later pulled from the snow and officials said they detected shallow breathing before attempting to resuscitate him, according to Hank Lunsford, a search volunteer. The man suffered trauma to his face, and Lunsford learned he died despite medical treatment.

“The staff at Silver Mountain extend their deepest sympathies to the family of the individual,” the resort said in a news release.

After the people believed to be buried were accounted for, Hoch said crews continued probing as a precaution. He said they hope that if their poles hit something with the density of a pillow, it’s a plant and not a body. The search lasted for hours.

Rescue dogs scoured the unprobed areas as a further precaution, Lunsford said.

The resort said that two other people involved in the avalanche had minor injuries. Lunsford said a snowcat transported people down the mountain.

No details were available about how the final skier was found buried in the evening, hours after the avalanche.

One ski employee official told Lunsford that he hadn’t heard of an inbounds avalanche at Silver Mountain in the 16 years he worked there. Tuesday’s events were enough to convince Lunsford all skiers should wear an avalanche beacon that leads search personnel to their location.

“I’m buying one today,” he said.

Hoch said he’d never been involved in an avalanche search at Silver Mountain, and the response by 20-some volunteers gave him a warm feeling.

“If it’s me, I’d like to think they’d jump in,” he said.

Some people on the mountain Tuesday didn’t know about it until they packed up to leave. Many coming off the mountain in the afternoon knew about the avalanche but didn’t see or hear it themselves.

At 3:30 p.m., as chairlifts closed and the sky darkened, another blast of avalanche control explosives rang out from somewhere on the mountain.

The snow still beckoned to Hoch.

“I’ll be up here tomorrow, too, probably,” he said.