3 Die From Toxic Gases At California Ski Resort

A snowboarder glides past a warning of the gases at California's Mammoth Mountain.
A snowboarder glides past a warning of the gases at California's Mammoth Mountain. (By Scott Sady -- Reno Gazette-journal Via Associated Press)
By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 8, 2006

LOS ANGELES, April 7 -- On the slope of Mammoth Mountain, a California peak that had already claimed four lives this winter, three ski patrol members died in a bizarre accident Thursday after they fell into a snow cave created by volcanic gas and were overcome by toxic fumes.

James Juarez, 35, John "Scott" McAndrews, 37, and Charles "Walter" Rosenthal, 58, were moving a fence to prevent skiers from coming too close to the gases when they fell through the snow, according to a statement released by Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Seven members of a rescue team sent to help them were hospitalized for exposure to the fumes and released the next day.

Carbon dioxide and other gases blow out of the volcanic vent near the top of the 11,053-foot peak in the Sierra Nevada range, melting the snow in a bubble above it. "This vent is and has been, since forever, a very well-known, well-recognized spot," Mammoth Lakes Mayor Rick Wood said. "You can ski by it -- it's always roped off -- and you can smell the sulfur coming off it."

Normally after a heavy snowfall, ski patrollers dig out and move a fence that keeps skiers away from the vent, Wood said. A blizzard brought more than six feet of snow to the mountain earlier this week, and patrollers were moving the fence when Juarez and McAndrews fell 21 feet through the top layer of snow into the cave below. Rosenthal and another ski patroller descended to help them.

The three died from a lack of oxygen, which is displaced by carbon dioxide, Mono County Coroner Ralph Obenberger said. The fourth ski patroller was rescued in time and survived.

Juarez had been a ski patroller for five years, McAndrews for one year and Rosenthal for 34 years, according to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area statement. Rosenthal was president of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. He studied snow hydrology and remote sensing of snowpack at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said university spokesman Paul Desruisseaux.

Mammoth Mountain is about a five-hour drive northeast of Los Angeles and attracts more than 1 million visitors each year. A record 52 feet of snow has fallen there since October, and the season has been particularly deadly. Three visitors have died in ski accidents, and another had a heart attack on the slopes. Also, a Mammoth Mountain ski patroller was killed in an avalanche 55 miles north of the mountain.

"The local community really feels this," said Justin Everson, pastor of Mammoth Lakes Community Church and a ski chaplain who holds a weekly "ski-up" worship service at the resort. Everson was at the hospital where the victims were taken Thursday. Ski patrollers "were weeping, they were hugging and they were grieving," he said, "because this is one of their own. And I suppose the unspoken understanding is this could have been any one of them."

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