US Navy Helicopter
US. Navy rescue personnel training. A similar helicopter was involved in the rescue and recovery on Split Mountain. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

California Hiker Dies in Summer Avalanche

The death is the third snow-related fatality that local search and rescue has responded to over the past three weeks

US Navy Helicopter
U.S. Navy
Adam Roy

from Backpacker

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A summer avalanche in California’s Sierra Nevada killed one hiker and left two others injured last week, search and rescue personnel said on Friday.

In a Facebook post, Inyo County Search and Rescue said law enforcement received word of three hikers caught in a wet avalanche while descending Split Mountain near Big Pine at about 4:30 p.m. on Friday, June 2. While two of the hikers had escaped with “minor to moderate injuries,” the third had died in the slide.

After determining that conditions were safe enough to attempt a rescue, four members of the team flew in a naval helicopter to Red Lake, about 2,000 vertical feet below the site of the avalanche, and climbed to the scene of the incident. After helping evacuate the two surviving hikers by air, the team camped out at Red Lake, planning to return the next morning to recover the third hiker’s body.

Retrieving the deceased hiker, however, turned out to be tricky for search and rescue personnel. The next morning, one member of the team flew to the accident site in a California Highway Patrol helicopter, but rough weather conditions prevented them from successfully recovering the body. Instead, the entire team climbed back to the site and lowered the hiker’s body by litter to near Red Lake, where the helicopter waited.

Though not as common as their winter counterparts, fatal summer avalanches aren’t unknown, especially after heavy snow years such as the one the Sierra just notched. Warming snow can cause loose, wet avalanches, where unconsolidated slush begins to slide at the surface. Those avalanches may not often bury hikers, but they can still be deadly: In a post about the incident, the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center noted that last week’s avalanche apparently swept all three hikers in the party over “steep and rocky terrain.”

Inyo County SAR noted that last week’s emergency response was the third fatal accident in three weeks where snow was a major contributing factor. The incident on Split Peak follows a skier’s death in a slide on Mt. Hurd on June 14 and a climber’s death on the north face of University Peak on June 30.