Saturday, April 08, 2006

Three ski patrollers fall to their death

As reported by the Los Angeles Times and Thursday, three ski patrollers at Mammoth Mountain, California, died when they fell 21 feet into a rock crevice at a natural steam vent, or fumarole, on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada ski area.

The accident occurred as the patrollers were securing the mountain following a late-season storm that dumped several feet of snow in the area. According to the earliest news reports, the patrollers were checking the fences around the vent when the snow collapsed.Mammoth Mountain's lifts are built on a dormant volcano with several active geothermal features.

On some parts of the mountain, near the popular Chair 3, for example, the vents are in close proximity to the trails. According to some of the news reports, the fatal accident happened at this location.The larger area surrounding the ski area and the town of Mammoth Lakes is encompassed by a massive caldera, the sunken crater of a collapsed super-volcano that erupted about 750,000 years ago, according to geologists.

Swarms of magmatic earthquakes regularly shake the area, which is also dotted with a bounty of natural hot springs. Earthquake scares have, on occasion, affected property values in the area, particularly back in the 1980s, when federal scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey warned of potential eruptions as they monitored an underground bulge of magma. The area is still watched closely for potential earthquake and volcanic activity.

Many local residents respect and honor that power in their personal lives, and there is even a small geothermal power plant near town. As a former long-time resident of the area and avid Mammoth Mountain skier, I am shocked and saddened to hear about this accident. For now, as skiers we can all pay respects and give thanks to all the patrollers around the West who work hard every day to try and keep the slopes safe for the rest of us.

The patrol deaths are the latest in a sad string of fatal accidents at Mammoth Mountain this season. Earlier in the year, six skiers died within a two-week span, including another ski patroller who was killed in a backcountry avalanche.The ski area also set a record for snowfall this season, passing the 617-inch mark on April 4, breaking the record set in the winter of 1992-'93.

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