Experienced group took standard safety precautions
By Marcy Stamper
Ian Fair, an experienced backcountry skier from Winthrop, died in an avalanche while skiing in the mountains above Mazama on Sunday (March 4).
Fair, age 36, was skiing with his fiancée, Stephanie Bennett, and two friends on Setting Sun Mountain, about 12 miles from Mazama. The group had snowmobiled from the Goat Creek SnoPark to Black Pine Basin and then ascended Setting Sun Mountain on skis with climbing skins to begin their downhill run, according to Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez.
Fair and his companions were all experienced backcountry travelers. They had taken avalanche-safety courses and were equipped with beacons and transceivers, dug a test pit to assess snow conditions, and had one skier traverse the ridgeline to see if it would trigger an avalanche, said Rodriguez.
After taking those precautions, the first skier descended and radioed up to his friends that the snow hadn’t shifted or settled, said Rodriguez. Fair was the second person to ski down the mountain, and he triggered the avalanche.
Fair’s friends located him with their beacons and dug him out right away, but he had already died from trauma, not suffocation, said Rodriguez. Trauma can occur from being swept through trees during an avalanche.
As the others traversed the slope, they heard it settling and “woofing” as the snow shifted under them, said Rodriguez.
“There are extreme avalanche conditions now. Even with digging a pit and beacons, it still resulted in a fatality,” said Rodriguez.
It took the group about four hours to climb from where they left their snowmobile. They reached the ridge at about 1 p.m., said Rodriguez.
The other skiers were able to get a cell signal and reported the accident at 1:40 p.m. A 10-person crew from the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, including search and rescue and Rodriguez, met the group at their snowmobile at about 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, but conditions were too unstable for the crews to safely reach Fair to recover his body.
On Monday, North Cascade Heli of Mazama volunteered a helicopter, a pilot and two guides to recover Fair’s body, which was airlifted by helicopter using a long line, said Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a sheriff’s deputy, and three people from Aero Methow Rescue Service were also on hand.
Fair worked for North Cascades Heli several years ago doing ground and radio operations, according to co-owner Paul Butler. He also taught at the Methow Valley Community School.
The other two skiers, both from Bellingham, are Stephan Ettinger and Daniel Paris.
A professional observer and forecaster from the Northwest Avalanche Center, accompanied by backcountry guides from North Cascade Heli, surveyed the site on Monday.
The avalanche center typically investigates after a fatality to improve the understanding of avalanches and avalanche risk. The observer examines the fracture line, the structure of the snowpack, identifies snow layers, and records the dimensions and depth of the avalanche, said Dennis D’Amico, an avalanche meteorologist with the center.
Their preliminary investigation found a large, hard slab avalanche had released on a west-northwest aspect at 6,900 feet. Results of the observer’s investigation will be posted on the Northwest Avalanche Center’s website this week.
In the past 10 days, there have been six avalanche deaths in Washington, as well as numerous injuries. Two backcountry snowshoers died when they were buried in an avalanche on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass on Feb. 25. On the same day, five snowmobilers were buried while they were eating lunch near Stampede Pass in Kittitas County. Three were buried completely and one died from his injuries. Also in Kittitas County, two other snowmobilers died and two were injured on March 3.
Earlier in February, a snowboarder was injured when he triggered a slab avalanche adjacent near Snoqualmie Pass.
The six fatalities are more than double the yearly average in the state.
Conditions on the east and west slopes of the Cascades have been more unstable this year, and increasing numbers of people are recreating in the backcountry, said D’Amico. “We’ve had a trickier snowpack than usual, which requires more patience and nuance to travel in avalanche terrain,” he said.