The conditions at Mt. Bachelor were the kind skiers and snowboarders live for, especially those who seek advanced runs in the deep powder.
A fresh dusting of snow Friday morning turned the remote corners of the mountain ski resort into some of the best tree-skiing days of the winter.
That’s where John Reynolds and his wife, Julianne, were skiing through knee-high powder in the West Bowls, an experts-only location off the Northwest lift at Mt. Bachelor. On their second run, as the Bend couple went deeper into the trees, they heard someone frantically yelling for help.
What happened next became the worst day at Mt. Bachelor in years: Two people were killed when they fell into tree wells. The separate accidents were the first time someone had died that way since 2002.
As Reynolds tried to understand what had happened in the West Bowls, he unclipped his skis and headed for the man who was yelling. He thought the man had broken an arm or leg, but he actually was trying to help a friend who had fallen on his snowboard head-first into a tree well.
He was unconscious and buried in 6 feet of snow.
“His head was completely covered in snow at that point,” Reynolds said Saturday. “His buddy was working to get his head out. I just started digging all the snow away and was just screaming for help.”
Other skiers and snowboarders arrived, and the group started digging to free the snowboarder. It took several people to pull him out. The snowboarder’s friend started performing CPR, as the Mt. Bachelor ski patrol arrived.
The snowboarder, identified as 24-year-old Alfonso Braun, of Bend, was taken to the West Village parking lot, where he was pronounced dead at 1:14 p.m.
“I feel like myself and everyone around tried to do everything we could,” Reynolds said. “I feel, in a way, I was there to help.”
Two hours after Braun’s death, a skier went missing. She, too, was buried in a tree well.
After five hours of searching, at about 8:30 p.m., ski patrol personnel and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue unit found the skier near the advanced White Bark run off the Cloudchaser lift. The skier, 19-year-old Nicole Panet-Raymond, of Portland, an honors student at the University of Oregon, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Her grandmother, Patricia Panet-Raymond, of Sarasota, Florida, told The Bulletin Saturday that her granddaughter was on a family ski trip with her father, mother and brother. She also met up with friends while at the mountain, Panet-Raymond said.
When Nicole Panet-Raymond’s friends told her they were going to head straight down the mountain to end their day, she said was going to do one more run on her own, her grandmother said. Nicole Panet-Raymond didn’t come down, though, and her friends reported her missing.
Patricia Panet-Raymond described her granddaughter as an excellent student, and someone who loved to travel. She had plans to study abroad in Spain next year.
“She was an amazing young girl,” Panet-Raymond said. “Just as lovely as could be, both inside and out.”
The two deaths in one day is unprecedented at Mt. Bachelor and amplifies the dangers of tree wells, which are created when a hollow space under deep snow forms around the base of a tree.
The last tree-well-related death at Mt. Bachelor occurred in February 2002, when a 22-year-old Bend woman fell in one while snowboarding. Since, the last recorded death on Mt. Bachelor was in May 2015, when a 29-year-old Bend man died skiing down a run after losing control and hitting a tree.
Drew Jackson, spokesman for Mt. Bachelor, said Saturday the resort does its best to warn skiers and snowboarders about tree wells, but there is no way to keep them from being created.
The mountain’s website has a warning message about tree wells on the conditions report page, and two permanent warning signs are posted at the top of the Northwest and Cloudchaser lifts, Jackson said.
When riding in the deep powder and trees, it’s essential for people to ride with another person since it’s impossible to get out of a tree-well alone, Jackson said.
“Each movement you make causes more snow to fall in on you,” he said.
While tree-skiing can be fun, it’s always a good idea to stick to a route and turn away from tree branches, because tree wells can be hard to spot, Jackson said. The snow may appear solid below a tree, but the base of the tree might be a couple feet below the snow, he said.
“In reality, it might be a very thin layer of surface snow the branches are holding up with a hollow cavern down underneath,” Jackson said. “If you get too close to one, it could tip you in.”
All the slopes were open Saturday as Mt. Bachelor returned to business as usual. High school skiers were competing in a state competition, and hundreds of visitors made their way down the slopes.
While it appeared like any other day at the mountain, Jackson said, it was extremely difficult for the staff members.
“We’re shocked and saddened,” Jackson said. “Just seeing the staff and the emotion about it. There’s just the feeling of deep condolence for the families.”
Jason Snelson and his wife, Emily, snowboarded Mt. Bachelor on Saturday to celebrate Snelson’s 41st birthday. The couple was visiting from their home in Flagstaff, Arizona, where they regularly snowboard.
Snelson, who considers himself an expert snowboarder, knows he’s taking a chance every time he rides through the trees. Any one of those trees could hide a well similar to the ones that claimed Braun and Panet-Raymond Friday, he said.
“I can’t really test every single square foot of snowpack on the mountain,” Snelson said. “I guess it’s like driving on the interstate. You are taking a risk.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, firstname.lastname@example.org