Accessing Central Oregon avalanche terrain

Where slopes are steep and snow is deep, there may be slides

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Apr 1, 2014 at 12:01AM

Fatal avalanches around the U.S.

The fatal avalanche Sunday on Paulina Peak, which killed a snowmobiler from La Pine, brought the total number of people killed by avalanches in the 2013-14 winter sports season to 26 nationwide, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Of the deaths, 11 were snowmobilers.

• 2013-14 26 killed, 11 snowmobilers

• 2012-13 24 killed, 1 snowmobiler

• 2011-12 34 killed, 9 snowmobilers

• 2010-11 25 killed, 4 snowmobilers

• 2009-10 36 killed, 17 snowmobilers

Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

The upper reaches of Paulina Peak are the type of place where avalanches can happen, as a fatal snow slide proved Sunday.

“It is pretty evident that it is avalanche terrain,” said Chris Sabo, trails specialist with the Deschutes National Forest.

Avalanches occur when there is the right mix of slope and snow. Sabo said avalanches typically occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees, where there has been a loading of layers of snow by sporadic storms or wind.

The avalanche that killed La Pine 28-year-old Kyle James Thomas occurred about 7,300 feet up Paulina Peak, which at 7,984 feet towers over Paulina Lake in Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The slope where the avalanche occurred is around 35 degrees. The recent combination of snowfall and fluctuating temperatures likely primed the peak for an avalanche, said Trevor Miller, a member of the board of directors for the Central Oregon Avalanche Association in Bend.

The avalanche Sunday is the second fatal slide on Paulina Peak in the past five years. In 2010 an avalanche killed Wesley Bryan Amos, who, like Thomas, was 28, from La Pine and driving a snowmobile.

Sabo and Miller cautioned anyone looking to recreate in the backcountry — snowmobilers, skiers, snowshoers, mountaineers and others — to go in with the ability to recognize when and where an avalanche may occur and the tools to react to one. Those tools are a beacon, a probe and a shovel. The beacon sends and receives radio signals, allowing members in a group to find someone buried in an avalanche. The probe is a collapsible pole used to pinpoint the location of the person found by the beacon. The broad-bladed shovel is then used to dig the person out.

The Central Oregon Avalanche Association offers free monthly classes about avalanches throughout the winter sports season. While other parts of the country have avalanche centers that offer regular avalanche forecasts, there isn’t one in Central Oregon.

This puts more responsibility on the people going into the backcountry to check the weather and evaluate the avalanche danger, Miller said. The association maintains a website where people can post information about recent avalanches, for others to use in planning their own trips.

Popular backcountry destinations with the potential for avalanches this time of year include Broken Top, Tumalo Mountain, Tam McArthur Rim and Paulina Peak, Miller said. But he and Sabo were quick to warn that avalanches may happen anywhere there is snow on the ground.

“Until you are walking on dirt that potential is still there,” Miller said.

Earlier this year an avalanche in the bowl at Tumalo Mountain gave a telemark skier a scare. Zach Violett, 31, of Bend was buried up to his knees by the slide on Feb. 8 but was able to dig himself out.

“I got pretty lucky,” he said in the week after the avalanche. “I lost a pair of goggles, that’s all.”

Violett, who had been skiing with two others, said the group skipped the normal avalanche precautions of digging test pits in the snow before skiing. He said he wouldn’t do that again and planned to get more avalanche training.

Checking conditions and following advisories is good advice, not just for skiers, Sabo said. About a week ago someone in a four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle drove around a gate at 10 Mile Sno-park in Newberry and nearly made it to the top of Paulina Peak. Traveling over groomed snowmobile trails on the road to the top of the peak, the SUV eventually bogged down in the snow and was buried up to its axles. A towing company had to use a bulldozer to pull it out .

Low snow along the Cascade Lakes Highway last month led four motorists, following GPS directions, to get stuck on the road, Sabo said. While a gate along the highway was open to allow for grooming, he said the highway closes every year to cars and trucks during wintertime.

“(It’s) real important for folks to do some research,” Sabo said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com