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Ski patrol: Avoid avalanches, stay inbounds

December 30, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Southern California is experiencing conditions that are perfect for avalanches. Last week's heavy snowfall combined with Tuesday's warm temperatures have authorities on high alert.An avalanche forms when you have several layers of snow falling, and one of the bottom-most layers breaks away, sending all of that snow -- a wave of it -- down the mountain. And avalanches don't only form in the Rocky Mountains, or in British Columbia. They've happened in Wrightwood before, less than one year ago.

It was just last January when a series of deadly avalanches came crashing down the mountainside in Wrightwood. Rescue crews scrambled to the scene, but three people died in the avalanche. Two of them were off-duty Mountain High ski patrollers. Robert Chacon was one of the survivors. He said all he could do was watch as an avalanche buried his friend, Mike McKay, under a mountain of snow, killing him.

"It happened in an instant. It sounded like a train wreck coming down the mountainside," said Robert Chacon, Mountain High ski patrol manager. "Just lost. You felt really small at that point in time."

They were all "out of bounds," but Chacon's been a member of the ski patrol at Mountain High for 12 years, and is even planning to climb Mt. Everest in a couple of years. During the avalanche he had all the proper equipment, a transceiver, a probe, a shovel, but even prepared, they were no match for the power of Mother Nature at her worst.

"Just goes to show you can never be prepared enough. You just never know," said Chacon."

And with Mountain High packed with skiers and snowboarders -- 7,000 of them Tuesday -- there are concerns about those who decide to go out of bounds, where avalanche danger is high. Warning signs are clearly posted many still talk about going off-trail.

"We're on our way up a lift a couple times about an hour ago, and a couple of guys had been up there a long time, talked about going off," said snowboarder Tony Margott.

It's just what the ski patrol hopes people won't do. Chacon knows firsthand just how deadly an avalanche could be.

"Stay in bounds," said Chacon. "Please, please obey all our signage. We put it out there for a reason, and it's just really important. We want to be here to make sure you guys are safe, and the best way for us to keep you safe is to keep you in bounds."

There is a lot of snow on the north-facing slopes at the resort Most natural disasters, most avalanches, can be unpredictable, and that's why the ski patrol says it's so important to heed warnings and no to go out of bounds.


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