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Hiker Dies in Wet Slide Avalanche in Calif., Third Snow Fatality in 3 Weeks

After historic snowfall, California's high country still poses major risks to hikers, climbers, and skiers even as we approach mid-July — a recent avalanche fatality on Split Mountain is a grim reminder.

search and rescue(Photo/nemeth.balint via Shutterstock)
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One person was killed Sunday when three hikers were caught in a wet slide avalanche on Split Mountain in California’s Inyo County. Two people in the group were also injured but survived the ordeal. It’s the fourth serious incident, and third fatality, that the Inyo County Search and Rescue team has responded to in the last 3 weeks, where snow was the primary contributing factor.

“Combine snow with inexperience, and you have a formula for an accident,” Inyo County Search and Rescue said. “The warm temperatures are creating very unforgiving snow conditions.”

Wet Slide Avalanche on Split Mountain

The Avalanche occurred around 12,500 feet on Split Mountain. It’s the eighth-highest peak in the state and one of California’s 11 14,000-foot peaks. It’s renowned as one of the state’s most challenging 14ers to summit.

The three hikers had summited the mountain earlier in the day. But upon their descent, they were swept away by a late-season avalanche. At 4:30 p.m., the Sheriff’s Department was notified of the stranded hikers and notified Inyo County Search and Rescue.

The SAR team assessed the weather and snow conditions and decided it would be safe enough to attempt an evening rescue. A helicopter from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station flew four rescuers to Red Lake. From there, they commenced a 2,000-vertical-foot hike to the scene of the accident.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, “Two [had] sustained minor to moderate injuries. Sadly, one sustained major injuries, leading to his death.”

The two injured individuals descended with the SAR team to Red Lake where they stayed the night. They recovered the deceased individual’s body the following day.

Third Snow Fatality in 3 Weeks

pacific crest trail sierra nevada hikers
Snowy hiking in the Sierra Nevada; (photo/Max Pixel)

This year, California received record snowfall across the state. It was the second snowiest year recorded by UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab in the past 77 years.

Even now, in mid-July, there is a lot of snow in California’s high country. It has made for some very dangerous snow conditions.

“If you slip while on a steep, soft snow slope, you likely will not be able to stop your fall,” wrote Inyo County Search and Rescue. “Furthermore, melting snow can suddenly release rocks on steep slopes, creating an unusually high risk of rockfall.”

And of course, the risk of late-season wet slides is overtly high this year. The eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains had a relatively cool spring, which largely preserved the historic snowpack. It’s since been exposed to consistently intense sunlight as well as summer rains. This has contributed to threats like cornice falls, glide avalanches, and wet avalanches.

The incident on Split Mountain is the third fatality involving snow the Sheriff’s Department has responded to in as many weeks. On June 15, two skiers were caught in a similar type of slide on Hurd Peak, killing one of them. On June 29, a mountaineer on University Peak sustained a serious fall over rock and ice and died of his injuries. In a fourth incident referenced by the SAR team, on June 10, a hiker slipped and fell down a snow-covered slope and was unable to self-arrest. They sustained serious injuries but survived the fall.

For more information on any of these incidents, or for tips on how to safely travel in the Sierra Nevada mountains, check out the Inyo County Search and Rescue Facebook page.

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