The first big storm of the season had dropped about a foot of snow on Crystal Mountain on Friday evening, and a group of six men, a mix of friends and family, took to the Silver Basin area backcountry for a day of ski touring.
The area — a large, steep open bowl that straddles the south end of the resort’s ski boundary — wasn’t yet open. The resort only opened last week, a relatively late season start, and the ski patrol hadn’t completed its avalanche-control work.
On Saturday morning, an avalanche buried all six skiers. Five survived, but one man was killed, the first person to die on the mountain since 2019, officials from the resort said.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the man Monday as 66-year-old Robert Weisel, from Issaquah, and determined he died from multiple blunt force injuries.
The six had been making their way uphill and triggered the avalanche around 10:50 a.m., Crystal Mountain posted in a statement on its website.
“This area was uncontrolled and not mitigated for avalanche hazard since this area had not yet opened for the season,” read the statement, in part.
Two other backcountry skiers were in the area and reported the incident to the ski patrol after seeing the slide, according to the statement.
Details on the man’s identity and others in the group were not immediately released. Frank DeBerry, president and chief operation officer of Crystal Mountain Resort, said he did not know if the other men in the group required medical attention.
“This should serve as a really firm reminder that, even though it’s late, even though we’re all anxious to get out there and be on the snow and have a good time, and even though this is the very first snowstorm we’ve had to enjoy all year … if you are backcountry skiing … you need to remember all of those (safety) practices and take great care and pay very close attention to open and closed terrain,” said DeBerry.
The man’s death marks the first avalanche fatality in the U.S. for the 2021-2022 season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks deaths across the country.
Sgt. Darren Moss of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said the group was equipped with electronic avalanche beacons. Those who survived, DeBerry said, either dug themselves out of the barrage of snow or were rescued by other members of the party. The ski patrol arrived around 11:05 a.m., according to the resort’s statement.
The 60-year-old man, though pulled from under the snow, had stopped breathing and couldn’t be revived, Moss said.
When it’s open, the area is designated as a black diamond, which means it is some of the steepest and most difficult terrain to traverse. Before the patrol takes avalanche mitigation measures — such as using explosives to trigger avalanches while skiers aren’t on the mountain — the area is prone to drifts breaking off and collapsing.
The Northwest Avalanche Center warned of “considerable” avalanche danger in the backcountry area of Crystal Mountain, with the increased snow depth widening the expanse of terrain where an avalanche could occur, according to NWAC’s area forecast for Saturday.
Staff posted warnings to other skiers, DeBerry said, out of concern that snow hanging above the avalanche’s crown — a so-called “hang fire” — might put them in danger if they tried to ski in the area.
The ski resort’s winter season has only just begun, with limited lift operations this weekend in preparation for a full opening Monday. By 6 p.m. Saturday, 12 inches of snow had fallen on the ski resort over a 24-hour period and winds had reached 100 mph at the summit, leading to the decision to not operate the Mount Rainier Gondola.
The skier is the second person to die in an avalanche in Washington this year, according to the Northwest Avalanche Center. In February, Washington State Patrol Trooper Steve Houle died after he and another person were buried by a large avalanche while snow biking in the Cascades west of Salmon la Sac Sno-Park in Kittitas County.