Sunday, February 23, 2020
Perfect Storm Set Up Conditions for Killer Avalanche
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The Blaine County Sheriff’s Department provided this photograph of the avalanche near the Baker Creek trailhead.
 
Friday, January 17, 2020
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

A 50-year-old snowmobile rider from Jerome was identified Friday as the man who perished in an avalanche 300 feet wide near the Baker Lake trailhead on Wednesday.

Kirk Douglas Rongen, 50, was unable to be revived.

The Blaine County Emergency Communications was notified of an avalanche with possible burials at about 3:30 p.m. The slide was in the Baker Creek area, which is about 20 miles north of Ketchum. The avalanche itself was uphill and a little to the left of the Baker Creek trailhead, said Sawtooth Avalanche Center forecaster Scott Savage.

First responders determined that two people were riding snowmobiles in an area when the slide occurred.

One of the riders survived the slide and began looking for the other. He found Rongen with the help of his avalanche transceiver but was unable to revive him and so went for help.

Responders, which included Blaine County Sheriff Search and Rescue, Sun Valley and Ketchum fire departments, Ketchum Ambulance, Wood River Fire and Rescue and Sun Valley Heli-ski were unable to revive Rongen, either.

Sawtooth Avalanche Center forecasters went to the scene on Thursday to investigate the technical aspects of the slide on Wednesday.

They determined that a slab avalanche failed on a wind-loaded south/southwestern slope near 9,000 feet. The crown was two to three feet tall and 300 feet wide, said Sawtooth Avalanche Center forecaster Scott Savage. The slide ran 600 vertical feet on a south-facing slope. And the debris averaged three to five feet—eight feet at its deepest.

It appeared that a catcher’s mitt-shaped area near a ridge above the trailhead caught snow, which then flowed down a shallow s-shaped gully, depositing up to eight feet at the bottom where the victim was found, said forecaster Ethan Davis.

“We really didn’t see anything surprising. We’ve had a lot of new snow and wind-blown snow on relatively shallow weak snowpack. And it’s not going away tomorrow,” he said.

Avalanche danger was rated “considerable” on Wednesday following a huge dump of snow and wind gusts that hit 70 miles per hour in some parts of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center’s forecast area, said Savage.

Savage said the fresh snow was like loading a slab of books on top of a weak shallow layer of potato chips.

“We got so much snow—five feet in the Sawtooth Mountains in the past five days. That’s a lot of snow. And most of the mountains in the area got between two and four feet,” he said.

Below-average snowfall in December set up conditions for the perfect storm, or the perfect avalanche, he said.

“To have an avalanche, you need a weak layer and a slab on top. The snowpack we already had couldn’t take that much and the new sugary snow didn’t bond well,” he added. “It will take a while—not a matter of hours and days—but weeks to stabilize. The snowpack needs a week-long vacation.”

Adding to the danger were winds, Savage added. Twenty-mile-per-hour winds strafed ridgetops in the Wood River Valley on Tuesday, creating what resembled ridgetop blizzards for those viewing them from below.

And the Soldier Mountains experienced gusts over 70 miles per hour with steady winds blowing, 30, 40, 50 miles per hour, he said.

“The wind moved a ton of snow. You can have 10 times the amount of loading with wind,” he added.

Sawtooth Avalanche Center forecasters have seen a lot of big slides in the past couple days—most of them in the Sawtooth Mountains and Soldier Mountains. One big slide occurred on Titus Peak.

A snowmobiler died in an avalanche in the Elkhorn Mountains in northeastern Oregon on Saturday.

The danger remains considerable. Check the avalanche forecast at www.sawtoothavalanche.com before you go out. And if you find yourself in an avalanche, try to get to the side, swim to stay on top and try to create a pocket of breathing space in front of your face as it seems to be coming to an end.

 

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