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The top of the mountain came loose

Mammoth Mountain avalanche closes popular ski resort

Avalanches at two of California’s largest mountain resorts added a dangerous edge to the season’s first major snowstorm, injuring several people as several feet of snow blanketed the region.

The first avalanche hit the Squaw Valley Ski Resort on Friday afternoon, ensnaring five people. Two of the people were hurt, one with an injury that was described by officials as serious, but not life threatening.

The second slide occurred Saturday morning on Mammoth Mountain, where a handful of the ski area’s employees suffered slight injuries.

There were no reports of missing people at either resort.

Snow near Mammoth’s 11,000-foot summit gave way around 10:15 a.m. as members of the resort’s ski patrol were trying to mitigate the chance of an avalanche, Lauren Burke, public relations manager for Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, said in a statement. Such work usually involves setting off cannons and other explosive devices to break up snowy overhangs that could give way.

The snow slid down Climax, a steep run for experts, and funneled into a narrow shoot named Upper Dry Creek before coming to a stop at the base of a chairlift called High Five Express, Burke said.

While the area where the ski patrol was working was closed to skiers, six Mammoth employees at the lift “were partially caught, but freed themselves quickly, suffering only minor injuries,” Burke said in a statement.

In addition, Burke said “a powder cloud” from the avalanche continued about 100 yards into an area that was open to skiers and boarders, where two guests were partially caught. They both freed themselves quickly.

Within minutes of the slide, a massive rescue operation, which included about 200 people and the use of search dogs, was immediately activated.

Upon hearing reports of the avalanche, Mammoth Hospital summoned about 20 extra doctors and nurses into work, but as of Saturday afternoon, it had not received any patients related to the event, according to an emergency room nurse, who declined to give his name.

“The reports we are getting is that all employees have been accounted for, and no one has called in to the number for missing loved ones,” he said.

Mammoth is in California’s Sierra Nevada range, about 300 miles north of Los Angeles. The snowstorm brought up to 5 feet of snow to the area — jump-starting what had been an underwhelming winter for the state’s ski resorts.

The slopes were crowded Saturday morning with people taking advantage of the new snowfall. Skiers realized something was amiss as chairlifts came to an abrupt halt and the air was suddenly filled with the sound of sirens as emergency responders and ambulances streamed up to the resort, a witness said in an interview with The Times on Saturday.

“I was waiting to board a ski lift when it suddenly stopped working,” said Barbara Maynard of Los Angeles. “It was pandemonium everywhere you looked. Ambulances, police vehicles and fire engines were rolling into the area. Simultaneously, Mammoth Mountain staffers and ski patrols were roaring up the slopes on snowmobiles.”

Many people were probing for buried skiers and snowboarders on the Comeback Trail, which cuts past Chairlift 5, she said.

“Shortly before the slide, that area was very crowded,” Maynard said. “Essentially, the top of the mountain came loose.”

Lucas Dunn was skiing down from Chairlift 16 when he saw snow pouring down what appeared to be a closed run near the High Five Express lift.

“I skied down to see what was going on, and at that point, you could see a bunch of broken trees and all the fencing had been taken out. You could see snowmobiles flipped and buried,” said Dunn, the social media manager at Footloose Sports, a sporting goods store in Mammoth Lakes. He said the men riding the snowmobiles appeared unhurt and were doing a head count as he passed by.

With the ski runs closed after the avalanche, throngs of motorists began making their way down into town in white-out conditions. As cars crept down the winding roads, Dunn said, more than 15 ambulances, their sirens screaming, made their way up the hill toward the site of the avalanche.

“That was the most unnerving part,” he said.

John Williams, 46, a longtime resident of the area, said he was among a group of friends preparing to board Chairlift 22 when it stopped suddenly, leaving about 150 skiers perplexed.

“We hiked about 15 minutes to the parking lot, where local emergency mayhem had broken out,” Williams said. “There were people trying to get out any way they could; some were waiting for buses, others were sharing rides and more than 100 just started skiing down Minaret Road, the main highway to the bottom of the mountain.”

The varying consistency of the snowpack deposited over the area by recent storms already was a topic of conversation among locals concerned about the potential for avalanches.

Thursday night, a heavy layer of wet snow accumulated over a few feet of light snow. On Friday night, the heavy, wet snow was covered with another fresh layer of light snow.

That combination, locals say, can result in layers of ice and light snow that fail to adhere and are, therefore, prone to avalanches.

There were no confirmed reports of missing people, but anyone who is aware of missing friends or family is asked to call authorities at (760) 934-0611.

The mountain is expected to reopen Sunday morning, Burke said.

At Squaw, west of Lake Tahoe, the avalanche crashed into two men and three women who were near the Olympic Lady chairlift about 1:40 p.m. Friday, in an area that was open to skiers and snowboarders, authorities said. Guests had been warned about the potential avalanche danger.

More than 100 rescuers used probes and dogs to search for people buried in the snow. The slopes were shut down for the rest of the day and reopened on Saturday.

The two injured people were taken to hospitals and one was released by the end of the day Friday. The other suffered a serious lower-body injury, according to a resort statement.

Heather Turping, 39, told Associated Press that she saw a cloud of snow pass in front of her. A woman screamed that her husband was missing and someone spotted his snowboard sticking out of the snow.

Turping helped dig him out and the man was able to snowboard back down the mountain.

The avalanche struck hours after the body of a missing snowboarder was found on the mountain. Wenyu Zhang, 42, of Rocklin was found dead Friday morning by the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol, according to the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.

Zhang had been missing since Thursday afternoon. The cause of his death is under investigation.

Officials at both resorts said they were investigating how the avalanches occurred.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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