Lake Mary Avalanche Case Study
Saturday, February 6, 1999
This is a case study of an accident which occurred near Lake Mary in the Donner
Summit area of California. The study is derived from reports and conversations, some of
which may be contradictory – in which case the author has made a judgement call as to
what is closest to the truth for the scenario. It is intended as a learning aid, not a
reporting exercise. It should not be used to draw any conclusions about the actions of
the participants, but rather to prepare students of the rescue art for similar situations in
A storm system had been dropping wet, loose snow for a day. The snow level was
dropping, but at the time of the incident there was 1-2 feet of wet, heavy snow on top of
a well-consolidated pack. There were high winds as well, which would have loaded
leeward slopes further.
At 18:00, the USFS issued an avalanche warning throughout the area.
16:00 A group of four, equipped for “snow play”, leaves their cabin at the
top of old highway 40. There are three males and one female
17:00 While climbing up a steep slope just northwest of Lake Mary,
against the PG&E station, the group is no more than 4 paces up
when they trigger an avalanche. The slope is approximately 70 feet
high, and about 30° (though some parts were steeper, up to 60°).
The slide is approximately 40 feet up the slope, 50 feet wide, and
ran clear to the lakeshore. All four are buried.
V1 and v2 are buried very close together, and can communicate.
After waiting a bit for rescue, they attempt to dig themselves out. V1
succeeds, and goes for help.
21:30 V1 successfully finds help at a nearby cabin. V1 rouses the
residents by breaking a window to get their attention in the midst of
the storm. The cabin rescuers grab blankets and household tools to
probe and dig and rush to the scene.
21:48 911 call is received from the cabin, reporting the accident and that
there is needed urgent medical attention.
22:00 Based on v1’s directions, they uncover v2 almost immediately. V2
is relatively unharmed. They then probe and dig for at least an hour
and uncover v3 and v4. Both v3 and v4 are hypothermic, and
responsive at the pain/verbal level only. V3 is moved slightly to get
out of some slush (axial drag onto blanket), but later rescuers found
both more or less in situ, though wrapped with blankets.
22:10 Donner Summit Fire Department confirms reports of a multiple
victim accident, and arranges establishment of a command post.
DSFD also arranges with Sugar Bowl Ski Area to dispatch a snow
grooming machine to clear a roadway to the area. Sugar Bowl also
dispatches rescue personnel by snowmobile (though the line
between Sugar Bowl Ski Resort personnel and DSFD responders is
a thin one – they are often one and the same).
22:30 Command post is established at Alpine Skills International complex.
22:40? Guides from ASI arrive at scene, and establish that v3 does not
have a pulse.
23:00 DSFD responders (including their paramedic) arrive at the scene
and report two victims. V3 is unresponsive and has no pulse; they
begin CPR with available trained rescuers. V4 is also severely
hypothermic, but responsive to “pain” (AVPU scale), and has signs
of a leg injury.
Because of the loose snow conditions, DSFD is unable to transport
equipment on the snowmobiles, and must rely on personal
equipment (no O2, no defib's, etc.).
23:28 V3 is evacuated to the command post at ASI by snowmobile and
sled, with continuous CPR en route. V3 is then transported code 3
via DSFD rescue to the hospital.
23:45 V4 is evacuated to the command post at ASI by snowmobile and
sled, then transported to Boreal by DSFD transport, transferred to a
Truckee paramedic rig there, and transported code 3 to the
0:00-00:30 V1 and v2 request transportation (though no longer needing any
medical care) are transported from the cabin by the DSFD on
snowmobiles to the fire station, and then are transported by DSFD
to the hospital to be with their friends.
There are conflicting reports on the actual cause of the snow slide. One report is that
the incident was a “cornice failure”, which is certainly possible given the frequent
formation of cornices at this location.
Snow studies and photos the next day, though, have convinced avalanche trained
personnel at Sugar Bowl and USFS that the cause was instead a snow pack failure,
with the fresh snow pack breaking off below the crest. There was no evidence the next
day of any pack failure below the fresh pack.
This is also supported by one victim’s recollection of seeing a crack form above them,
shooting across the slope. From their recollection, the crack formed 10 feet above them
(measurements the next day indicated further), and that it moved as a slab.
This does appear to have been self-triggered, as are most such releases.
V1 remembered sticking a hand out as the pack slowed, and it was free of the pack
when he stopped. V1 was supine, feet uphill, next to and above V2, with a hand clear of
the snow. V2 remembered attempting to swim during the avalanche. V2 ended up
supine, feet uphill, arm stretched towards the surface -- but fully encased. V4
remembered seeing the break, turning to run away, and hearing a whoosh.
All four were covered by the snow. V1 was clad in wool and flannel clothes, with a down
jacket, snow boots, a hat, gloves and goggles. V2 had on basically the same, though
with fleece instead of wool mentioned. V3 had blue jeans on, with a ski outfit on top. V4
had blue jeans, but with an additional layer of wool.
V1 and V2 were actually touching each other, with v1's hand touching v2's leg. V1 acted
quickly to clear a wider airway to the surface, and also cleared an air path to v2's leg.
Both v1 and v2 recall eating a lot of snow in order to clear a space around their faces.
V2 recalls seeing light above, but, as the air hole began to fill up, ultimately drifted off.
As v2 recalls, "I wanted to live, but it didn't seem necessary".
V1never felt cold, never felt panic, but kept eating snow, moving limbs into the snow,
opening space. V1 kept clearing snow. Four hours later, having lost both gloves and
one boot, having bruised all four limbs slamming against the snow walls, v1broke free.
Unable to manipulate either hand, and seeing a light across the lake, v1 left for help,
postholing across the lake with only one boot.
V4 was conscious and vaguely aware for a brief period, but then lost consciousness,
and did not regain consciousness until awakening in the hospital.
The cabin rescuers showed incredible initiative and response to what could not have
been anticipated. Roused from post-prandial relaxation, they had the presence of mind
and internal organization to effectively rescue three victims, only one of which was
immediately identifiable. They also had sufficient first aid training to know how to gently
treat the hypothermic.
All had been skiing, dinner had just ended, and everyone was, "waiting for each other to
go to bed." One saw a figure through the glass, shouting and gesturing wildly. They
thought it was another colleague, arriving late. Then the figure (v1) broke the window
and they began to realize there was an emergency. K. looked at a watch and noted the
time as 21:30.
J., having heard from v1 what had happened, and familiar with the terrain, grabbed
boots and ran out into the storm, following the rapidly filling footsteps of v1. S. called
911. A. followed J. on snowshoes with two shovels. L. said loudly, "we have to have a
When A. and J. arrived at scene, they saw one hand sticking out and rapidly dug out v2.
The second wave of searchers left with broomsticks, mops and other improvised
probes. They also brought a sled/saucer to haul. Simultaneously two others went to ASI
(a nearby mountaineering lodge/school). They initially indicated that one survived and
the rest had died (report had not yet come back of v2).
When the second wave arrived they put v2 on the sled/saucer and started back to the
cabin. V2 revived and actually walked the last part. V1 and v2 were thereafter kept
warm at the cabin. J. left the cabin for ASI, to tell let others know that there were more
A third wave of searchers went out with more probes, sleeping bags and blankets, and
hot water bottles. They had approximately eight people probing, though not with an
organized probe line. They found v4 next. V4 was logrolled onto a sleeping bag, airway
opened, and assessed. V4 was responsive only to pain, with a touch to an injured leg.
Baseline vitals were not noted at the time. V4's eyes were open, was vocalizing, and
had purposeful movement, but remained unresponsive.
V3 took longer, with at least one false strike, and after a fine grid search. V3 was found
on the left side in a fetal position, lying on slush. V3 was unresponsive, with spastic
movements and some moaning. V3 had foam at the mouth, and initially showed some
signs of breathing. No (radial) pulse was detectable. After a quick debate, they
performed an axial drag onto a blanket. V3 kept moving spastically, which then slowed
after twenty minutes.
Although it’s not appreciated by an observer, organizing a rescue attempt in the middle
of a storm, with sketchy knowledge of what’s happened or even how many victims there
are, is a difficult affair. DSFD and other rescue agencies in the area had recently had a
conference to pre-plan this, and the planning showed.
The first onto the scene were a couple of guides from ASI, followed by two snowmobiles
with professional rescuers. The ASI guides initiated CPR on v3 after being unable to
detect breath or pulse. Breaths were initially ineffective because of fluid in the mouth. It
is unclear if the initial breaths were with a mask or without, though the masks were
employed quickly. CPR continued during extrication and transport to the ambulance. C-
spine protocols were not employed.
Snowmobiles were used for the professional rescue, though a grooming machine was
provided by Sugar Bowl but could not cross the lake. Communication logs show the
process to have worked relatively well, and will not be described in more detail
The reason this will go down in the annals, though, is the length of time v1, v2 and v4
were buried and still survived. Self rescue after four hours (for v1) is rare, but survival
for v2 and v4 after several hours is almost unheard of.
While no small amount of credit goes to the constitutions of the victims, credit must also
go to the effective search and initial treatment by the cabin members and the
professional rescue and treatment thereafter. This is a story of what went right.
We should all be so lucky or so good…