Slides highlight danger lurking in snowpack

SANDPOINT — Back-to-back avalanches at Schweitzer Mountain Resort earlier this month are underscoring dangerous conditions that are present in the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains.

The slides occurred on Dec. 7 on Headwall, a front-side run located between Ridge Run and Stiles, according to Sean Briggs, the resort’s marketing coordinator.

Briggs said there was a hard ice layer below about 5 inches of light, freshly fallen snow. However, ski patrollers assessed the slope and deemed it to be at low risk of sliding.

The first slide occurred when a skier hit the icy layer underneath the snow, lost his balance, fell and slid all the way to the bottom.

“It caused all that snow to pop and all that snow came down on him,” said Briggs.

The skier slid down to a little gully at the bottom of the run that acts as a trap.

“Luckily, his friends were there and they were able to dig him out. And that happened to two more people within about 10 minutes,” Briggs said.

The first skier was trapped and could not free himself without help from his companions. Briggs said the extent of the burials in the second slide was unclear.

Although rare, in-bounds avalanches are not unheard of at Schweitzer. Longtime patrollers told Briggs it’s been at least 20 years since an in-bounds slide swept up a skier.

“That being said, there’s always inherent risks when you go skiing, whether you’re in-bounds or out of bounds. It’s never 100-percent safe,” said Briggs.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Panhandle Avalanche Center posted a heads-up on its website on the day of the slides at Schweitzer.

Avalanche forecaster Kevin Davis warned backcountry visitors that dangerous conditions existed because of new snow rapidly accumulating over a very thick ice crust.

“Be careful out there. This is a bad time to go for a ride since the pack is still shallow and you will be pinballing off rocks and stumps and trees,” Davis said in the advisory.

Another advisory is scheduled to be released on Friday.

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