Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Snowboarder buried in slide on Galena Pass

Victim emerges from tiny avalanche unscathed

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Janet Kellam This small, seemingly harmless soft slab avalanche near Galena Summit carried enough snow to completely bury a snowboarder last Thursday, Dec. 21.

Small avalanches can be just as dangerous as large ones, as a snowboarder discovered near Galena Summit last week.

Seth Murdock, 31, from Hansen, Idaho, was fully buried after triggering a small avalanche just above the shoulder of state Highway 75 near the summit of the pass on Thursday, Dec. 21.

The slide carried Murdock down a short but steep pitch before depositing him upright on the side of the highway.

"I heard a little bit of a crack and saw snow starting to move all around me," he said. "In no time I was buried."

Murdock said he landed face up on the road, and he could "see light through snow."

"I had a hard time breathing, but I had one hand up and managed to get an air hole through that," he said. "I dug a little bit and could get my hand around my face. At that point I was screaming myself hoarse for help."

He said he could "hear some cars going by" but nobody seemed to notice him until he heard a "car stop and reverse."

"Then I really started screaming for help," he said. "I heard some guys and two people ended up stopping and had me dug out within a couple minutes."

Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Director Janet Kellam said the foot-deep soft slab slide occurred in a rocky area on an easterly aspect.

"It was exactly what we'd been warning about—steep slopes and rocky areas where new snow lies on top of weak, faceted old snow," Kellam said.

The Avalanche Center advisory—updated daily at or via a telephone hotline at 622-8027—on the day of the accident called for moderate danger.

"Most locations throughout our forecast area have an upside-down snowpack caused by last week's storm snow sitting on generally weaker snow," the Dec. 21 advisory stated. "Backcountry users should use a cautious approach and continually evaluate conditions when recreating on or under steep terrain."

Murdock said he has about 15 years of experience recreating in the backcountry, but he was completely surprised by the force of such a tiny slide.

"It was really sobering how small of an avalanche can completely subdue you in no time at all," he said. "This completely changed the way I look at things in the backcountry."

He added: "I want to thank the people who dug me out."

Three people have been killed in avalanches in the United States so far this season—all of them in the past three weeks. One victim was a skier traveling in closed terrain at Snowmass ski area, in Colorado. The other two were snowmobilers in Montana and Wyoming.

As of Tuesday, upper elevation slopes had received more than a foot of new snow from a string of recent storms.

Kellam said the new, wet snow load will help stabilize conditions in the long term, but in the immediate future the new snow has created a "top heavy" snowpack.

She said the next area of concern is in the south and central valley areas, in "terrain we haven't been able to get into."

Once enough snow falls in those areas to support backcountry recreation, Kellam said she is concerned about a "persistent weak layer at the bottom of the snowpack" that could spell trouble.

The Avalanche Center will host an avalanche basics class Thursday, Jan. 4, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Room 301 of the Hailey Community Campus. The class is free and no reservations are necessary. An optional all-day field session will be offered Saturday, Jan. 6, for those who have attended a basics class.

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