A group of three hikers faced a devastating ordeal on July 2, 2023, when they were caught and carried in a wet loose avalanche while descending above Red Lake, near Split Mountain, in the Easter Sierra. Although no one was buried under the avalanche, two individuals sustained minor to moderate injuries, while tragically, one hiker sustained major injuries that proved fatal.
The surviving members immediately contacted the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, prompting the initiation of a Search and Rescue operation. Limited information is available regarding the incident and the exact nature of the avalanche. Initial reports suggest that it was a small wet loose avalanche, yet significant enough to cause all three hikers to lose their footing in steep and rocky terrain.
This unfortunate event marks the second avalanche-related fatality in the Sierra region in the past month, highlighting the unexpected risks that persist even during what is typically considered a safer period.
The region experienced an abundant snowfall season, resulting in a much thicker snowpack than usual for this time of year. The snowpack is currently facing stress due to intense solar radiation, summer rains, and warm overnight temperatures, making wet avalanches, cornice failures, and glide avalanches more likely. The presence of loose, unconsolidated snow on the surface and the absence of overnight refreezing create conditions where wet loose avalanches can be easily triggered, while halting a fall in steep terrain becomes exceptionally challenging.
In addition to these concerns, there are several objective hazards that demand attention. Snow bridges, which are essential for safe travel, are melting out and may give way under the weight of hikers. Creeks continue to flow at elevated levels, rendering some crossings difficult or even impossible. These factors accentuate the need for caution when venturing into backcountry areas. It is crucial to remember that avalanches are not limited to the winter season; as long as there is snow on the ground, the risk of avalanche activity persists.
Outdoor enthusiasts are urged to remain vigilant and take into account the current hazardous conditions. Comprehensive knowledge of snowpack stability, terrain assessment, and avalanche safety protocols is essential for anyone planning backcountry adventures. Staying informed about weather forecasts, monitoring snow conditions, and heeding official advisories can help mitigate potential risks. Prioritizing safety and being well-prepared are paramount to ensuring a safe and enjoyable outdoor experience.
The incident serves as a sobering reminder of the unpredictable nature of mountain environments and emphasizes the need for caution and preparedness when exploring the backcountry. Our thoughts go out to the family and friends of the victim, as well as the injured hikers, during this difficult time.