April 29, 2020 — A party of two skiers, one male, one female, both in their late twenties/early thirties, set out around 9:30am to ascend, then ski a prominent canyon on the northeast side of Independence Peak, near the Kearsarge Pass trailhead. After climbing for several hours, and gaining several thousand feet, they heard then saw an approaching avalanche from above. With no time to react, both were caught up in the moving snow but the male was able to grab on to some rocks until the moving snow passed. The female, though, was carried out of sight down the canyon.
The male subject, now missing his skis, was able to move down the canyon and eventually found his partner (and half of a ski) on the skier’s left edge of the debris, unburied but with injuries severe enough that she was unable to continue out, having been carried approximately 1,000 feet by the avalanche.
Details of the initial contact are not clear, but around 11:45am the Inyo County Sheriff received a call concerning some sort of slide on the Kearsarge Pass Road, and the Inyo County Search and Rescue team was deployed along with resources from the CHP including CHP helicopter H40, Inyo County Sheriff and CAL Fire. The total response included over 40 personnel.
Upon arrival on the scene the SAR team snow safety officer and other team members evaluated avalanche conditions and concluded that the area continued to have high danger avalanche conditions. In addition to a successful rescue of the subjects, a goal was to minimize the number of respondents exposed to the avalanche hazard, so the SAR team and CHP determined that a helicopter hoist offered the fastest and safest means of extricating the injured subject.
H40 was able to insert one SAR team member at the subject’s location and the patient was subsequently evacuated by the helicopter and taken to Southern Inyo County Hospital.
Some notes: had a helicopter evacuation not been possible it would have taken twenty or more SAR team members to safely evacuate the patient. With warm temperatures the snowpack is unstable, especially in the heat of the day. It is common practice among ski tourers to begin the day with an “alpine start” – getting up well before daylight and turning around as soon as the snow starts to soften. We hope it goes without saying that the both subjects are lucky to have survived this incident