Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Snowmobiler buried in avalanche

34-year-old Richfield man remains in serious condition


Photos courtesy of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center An avalanche in the Baker Creek drainage northwest of Ketchum buried Lincoln Hiatt, of Richfield, under 2 feet of debris near his sled in the bottom of the frame. Hiatt triggered the slide near the ridge and was overcome trying to outrun the avalanche on his snowmobile. Hiatt was wearing an avalanche beacon and was found within minutes near his sled by members of his party.

By STEVE BENSON

and JODY ZARKOS

Express Staff Writer

A 34-year-old snowmobiler was evacuated by Life Flight from the Baker Creek drainage on Saturday after being buried by an avalanche about 15 miles northwest of Ketchum.

Lincoln Hiatt, of Richfield, remained in serious condition with a back injury Monday afternoon at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, where he was transported as darkness set in Saturday evening.

According to the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, Hiatt triggered the slide at about 3 p.m. while "highmarking" in a steep, rocky bowl near the headwaters of Apollo Creek at 9,500 feet. Highmarking—the practice of riding a snowmobile up a slope as far as possible—is a popular activity among snowmobilers. It can also prove deadly, often causing slopes to fracture and slide.

Hiatt triggered the slide near the top of the slope, which was estimated to be between 37 and 40 degrees in pitch, stated a report by Chris Lundy, a forecaster with the avalanche center.

Lundy said Hiatt tried to outrun the avalanche and "in the process he apparently collided with a tree and was separated from his sled."

Three other snowmobilers in Hiatt's group were reportedly in the runout zone of the avalanche, which was about 250 feet wide, 2 feet deep and ran 400 vertical feet, but managed to escape unscathed.

All four snowmobilers were wearing avalanche beacons and Hiatt was quickly found buried under about 2 feet of debris, Lundy said. The depth of the debris was close to 10 feet deep, Lundy said.

Sun Valley Heli-Ski guide Pete Patterson responded to the call and flew in with the Life Flight crew, which included a pilot and nurse.

Lundy said the person who located the man, a young woman, was the daughter of another member of the group.

"She said she had a newer version digital beacon, which was more user-friendly," Lundy said.

"She did an excellent job of getting to him, uncovering him, getting him air and not moving him too much once they got him uncovered, because his back seemed messed up," Patterson said. "She did that in under two minutes."

Lundy said Sun Valley Heli-Ski "really made that rescue happen."

"Their pilot was on vacation, but because of their fuel truck and guides helping the helicopter land where it did, it made the rescue happen that night," Lundy said.

If the rescue had been delayed and darkness set in, Lundy said Hiatt probably would have been forced to spend the night in the backcountry.

The avalanche center's advisory on Saturday warned of moderate danger of triggering an avalanche in "very steep, northerly facing slopes in either high alpine terrain or in very steep rocky areas."

Another snowmobiler triggered an avalanche near Vienna Mine in the Smiley Creek drainage, northwest of Galena Summit, on Saturday. Lundy said it occurred in similarly steep, northeast-facing terrain.

"We were telling people if you're gonna trigger a slide that's the area it will be in," Lundy said Monday.

The party did not read Saturday's advisory and ignored signs of existing dangers. The group triggered a slide earlier in the day on a separate slope and the avalanche that buried Hiatt occurred adjacent to a slide that had been triggered by snowmobilers a week earlier.

But Lundy added that the group "did do a lot of things right."

"They really need to be commended on having proper avalanche gear," Lundy said. "They had practiced (rescues) and because of that it saved this guy's life. These people did an excellent job."

While temperatures have been warm enough to foster wet slides on sunny aspects, Saturday's avalanches were due to a dense slab on top of loose, sugary facets that formed during January's dry, cold spell.

"Stability tests near the crown of the avalanche and elsewhere along the ridge required significant force to fail, but once they did they broke very cleanly," Lundy wrote in Monday's advisory.

Lundy said it's easy to fall into a false sense of security in the backcountry this time of year.

"I'm certainly guilty of this attitude," he said. "People think, 'We're heading into spring, it's been so warm, the snowpack must be stabilizing.'"

But trigger points continue to exist and backcountry travelers should keep their guards up, Lundy said.

The avalanche center issues daily advisories on its Web site at www.sawtoothavalanche.com.




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