Body of avalanche victim recovered
A Pacific Grove cross-country skier’s body was recovered 10:30 a.m. Monday from the base of an avalanche site north of Donner Summit.
Authorities had been searching for the body of 37-year-old Joseph A. Gashler for nearly 20 hours. At 1 p.m. Saturday dispatchers received a call from a skier who had been with Gashler at the time of the avalanche. The accident occurred Thursday in the north-facing ravine on the south side of Castle Peak, about three miles west of the Boreal exit.
The large amount of snow that had accumulated since the avalanche complicated search efforts, making it difficult to locate its path, said Nevada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joseph Salivar.
“That (was) the biggest struggle – to find the edges of the debris field,” he said.
Gashler and his friend were experienced skiers who knew the area, Salivar said. They had headed out Dec. 31 and stayed in a cabin known as the Peter Grub Hut for the night. The New Year’s Day blizzard, bringing extreme temperatures and white-out conditions, caught them when they attempted to ski out, Salivar said. As they traversed across a bowl between the hut and the Castle Peak area, a corneas above them gave way, causing the avalanche.
The surviving skier escaped uninjured. He was buried up to his shoulders but was able to dig himself out, find his skies and head back to the hut. He stayed there until the storm subsided Saturday morning.
After he skied out, he used a cell phone to call for help. The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, Placer County Sheriff’s Office, several ski patrols and various search and rescue operations assisted in the search for the missing skier.
Using snow probes, teams of an average of 30 people worked with dogs during the three-day search. Opening the holes in the snow also lets any scent up for the dogs moving behind workers. They started at the bottom of the debris field, an area about the size of one and a half football fields.
“They’re having to dig out 10 feet of snow before they probe down,” said Chris Brouwers , the president of the Nevada County Search and Rescue, during the search. “When they get a strike with the dogs, that’s the area they dig out. They may dig out a 30 feet circle. You can imagine shoveling out your driveway. 300 feet worth – that’s a lot of work.”
Searchers had found several items of clothing, including a glove, a ski skin and a backpack, before locating the Gashler.
According to the Forest Service National Center, avalanches caused 58 deaths in 2002 and 2003. Depending on the clothes the person is wearing or how much of a breathing pocket a victim can create, survival time varies from a few minutes to a few hours, Salivar said.
Those experienced in such conditions can survive several days if they have the equipment with them to create a snow cave, Brouwers said.
“Certified searchers are trained … to build a cave so that they can rest and build up more energy to be able to dig themselves out,” he said.
Salivar said although avalanches occur frequently in this area, it is unusual that they cause fatalities. It is even more unlikely that days pass before the rescue crews are alerted.
In the wake of the same storm, two skiers and four snow boarders were found uninjured after getting lost at separate ski resorts near Lake Tahoe.
Skiers Nick Panofsky, 20, and Josie McKee, 17, were lost Friday on the backside of Sugar Bowl. They were found Saturday at 12:30 a.m.
Nickolas Novich, 20, Kip Shields, 25, Jesse McKillop, 24, and Porter McQueary, 26, were lost on the backside of Alpine Meadows. They found a hunters cabin for the night, where they started a small fire.
At Donner Ski Ranch, a 13-year-old boy was trapped under a small snow slide, but area ski patrol was able to dig him out within 20 minutes.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.