RENO, Nev. (AP) — An avalanche roared through a section of expert trails at a California ski resort near Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, sweeping up four people and killing one, as a major storm with snow and gusty winds moved into the region, authorities said.
The avalanche occurred about 9:30 a.m. and prompted Palisades Tahoe to close as search crews combed the area under the K-22 lift, which 30 minutes earlier had opened for the first time this season. It serves “black diamond” runs for skilled skiers and snowboarders.
Skier Mark Sponsler said he arrived at the KT-22 lift amid howling winds and white-out conditions to find it shut down. Unbeknownst to him, the avalanche had just hit.
He spoke to someone who was in the second group to ride up the lift that morning. That person was in the lift and watched the disaster from above, said Sponsler, a veteran weather forecaster and founder of stormsurf.com.
“There was screaming, there were skis and poles and a hand sticking up out of the snow,” Sponsler said the witness told him.
The avalanche debris field spanned about 150 feet (45.72 meters) wide, 450 feet (137.16 meters) long and 10 feet (3.05 meters) deep, the sheriff’s office said.
“This is a very sad day for my team and everyone here,” said Dee Byrne, president of Palisades Tahoe, her voice emotional.
The Placer County Sheriff’s Office identified the person killed as Kenneth Kidd, 66, a resident of nearby Truckee and Point Reyes. One person suffered a lower leg injury and two others were treated for unspecified injuries and released, officials said.
The avalanche occurred on steep slopes in the GS Gully area. Michael Gross, vice president of mountain operations, said ski patrols had been on the slopes checking the avalanche conditions since Sunday.
“They’ve been up there doing control work, evaluating weather conditions, setting up all safety markings, hazard markings, et cetera, to get them prepared for today’s opening,” Gross said at a news conference Wednesday.
The cause of the avalanche is under investigation, officials said. It happened as a powerful storm was expected to bring as much as 2 feet (61 centimeters) of snow to the highest elevations by early Thursday.
Palisades, the site for the 1960 Winter Olympics, is on the western side of Lake Tahoe, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Reno, Nevada. Winds at the top of Palisades resort (8,000 feet) were gusting between 31 mph and 38 mph at the time of the avalanche.
Dan Lavely, 67, of Reno is a season pass holder at Palisades and skied mostly at Alpine Meadows on Monday when there was very little snow and the KT-22 lift was closed.
The KT-22 run along the side of the lift is where the giant slalom was held during the 1960 Olympics, he said.
“Really good skiers love it because it’s really steep,” he said. “I remember when I was really young I was skiing around there. I fell over and slid like two-thirds of the way down the mountain. There was no way to stop because it’s just so steep.”
The death Wednesday was the first U.S. avalanche fatality of the season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which monitors nationwide.
A 2020 avalanche at Alpine Meadows killed one skier and seriously injured another a day after a major storm. Another avalanche at the resort in March 1982 killed seven people, including several employees.
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