A La Pine man killed Sunday in an avalanche while snowmobiling near Paulina Lake Lodge was a veteran rider who loved the sport, his mom said.
Karen Brown, Kyle Thomas’ mother, on Monday morning said her son was wonderful man and a fantastic father.
“He was a vibrant, happy young man,” Brown said. “He was always smiling. Everybody loved him.”
Thomas, who would have turned 29 this month, was riding his snowmobile with two friends near the top of Paulina Peak east of La Pine in a popular area called Paulina Peak Playground when an avalanche buried him and his snowmobile around 3:30 p.m.
Brown said Thomas had been riding snowmobiles since he was 9 years old and knew the area well.
The other two riders, who were also experienced on snowmobiles, were able to avoid the avalanche and alerted Thomas’ family, who called 911 and immediately began searching for Thomas.
Karen Brown and her husband, Todd Brown, were part of a rescue group that found Thomas around 5:50 p.m., she said.
Thomas is survived by his parents, one brother, one sister and his 5-year-old daughter.
Karen Brown said the family has not yet made plans for a memorial service.
Thomas was riding near 7,300 feet when the avalanche occurred, according to Deschutes County Sheriff’s Special Services Coordinator Lt. Scott Shelton. The avalanche tumbled down the north face of Paulina Peak on a slope of about 35 degrees. Investigators estimate it was approximately 200 yards wide and 75 to 100 yards long. The debris field was estimated to be between 3 and 5 feet deep.
Shelton said the number of avalanches in Central Oregon is usually fairly small, but fluctuating weather conditions this year have triggered more of them than usual.
“We had the nicer weather for a little while and the sun began to melt the snow, then we got more snow on top of that,” he said. “We usually have a pretty regular snowpack, but the changing weather creates layers in the snow that can be unstable.”
Shelton said a team of investigators on Monday went to the area to try to determine what triggered the avalanche. He said the two riders Thomas was with Sunday gave search and rescue personnel good information about what happened, which should aid in the investigation.
“We should know more about what happened after today,” he said. “I think it was just a series of unfortunate events.”
Shelton said he doesn’t think Thomas or the other two riders were carrying beacons, probes or shovels.
“We try to remind folks as much as we can to be as prepared as possible when riding in the backcountry,” he said.
Vera Riser, president of the Oregon State Snowmobile Association, said her group regularly holds avalanche training seminars in an attempt to educate riders about staying safe.
“We’ve had a low snow year, and the conditions are worse right now,” she said. “The lack of snow means that riders have to go higher. Probably up high is where the best snow is.”
Riser said some riders do what is known as “high-marking,” which means trying to drive their machines as high up the mountain as possible, though she didn’t know if Thomas and the other two riders were doing that.
“I know there are a certain number of riders who go high-mark,” she said. “They may not have been, but it’s a challenging thing that some young guys do. He was an experienced rider and a wonderful young man.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org