Couple 'blown away' by avalanche destruction
'It felt very eerie up there'BROOKE GARDINER
A couple who witnessed the site of a significant avalanche near the Remarkables ski area shortly after it happened say they were blown away by the size and amount of debris left in its path.
"It felt very eerie up there. There were a lot of tourists up there who didn't seem to notice anything was wrong but the local people up there knew something was up and it wasn't normal to have all the helicopters around."
The pair first saw the trail of destruction in the valley between the two cones of Double Cone, near Lake Alta, from a chairlift.
"We hopped on the chairlift and were heading up the mountain and we were like ‘whoa, what is that?'. It was really quite big.
"We didn't hear it go off but we saw the debris just sitting there."
They said the avalanche looked to have started as two channels because there were two trails of destruction leading to the bottom.
"One avalanche was between the two cones and the other was on the other side. There is a lot of debris in it. It has taken a lot of snow and rock in it," the woman said.
The keen skiers had been skiing on the field every day for the past two weeks and said although the area was out of bounds, they had seen people hiking up there daily.
"It's very common to see people hiking all over that mountain."
The couple were impressed by what they considered to be a speedy and comprehensive response by mountain and rescue staff, who they watched probing the site. "If we or our friends were caught up in an avalanche we would be pretty happy to know how fast and thorough the response was."
Staff at the base building were also really caring and were ensuring everyone was OK and had a ride down, they said.
AVALANCHE AT SKI FIELD
A full-scale three-hour search established no-one was buried in a large avalanche on a steep face of Double Cone near the Remarkables ski area, NZ Ski's chief executive said last night.
The avalanche hit about 3pm just outside the ski area boundary in a steep area known as the Terminator chutes. It was about 200 metres long, 800m wide and dumped debris in areas to a depth of up to 3m.
About 7pm yesterday, chief executive James Coddington said the company had finished probing and a dog crew had taken a last walk over the site. "We're now 100 per cent certain there's nobody buried in the avalanche debris."
The response involved 40 patrollers from three skifields - the Remarkables, Coronet Peak and Cardrona - and three dog teams.
Grid searches were conducted in 80m by 100m sweeps, a police-led search and rescue operation deployed helicopters to collect searchers from other mountains and then searchers swept over the debris field.
It was a natural avalanche triggered by warm spring conditions and a fresh snowpack released on a dangerously steep face, Mr Coddington said.
Although one person was moved from the base building by ambulance about 6.30pm, Mr Coddington said the ambulance on standby was not otherwise needed. The search and rescue teams and patrollers had done a great job in record time and their professionalism was to their credit, he said.
New Zealand Mountain Safety Council snow and avalanche programme manager Andrew Hobman said searchers scouring the area had a lot of debris to work through.
"It is possibly two metres deep at the bottom where it has collected."
Tracks were found near the avalanche but it was not known whether anyone had been caught up in it.
There had been no signals from transceivers detected at the site.
The "slab avalanche" - which occurs when a layer of snow sitting on an unstable layer slides away - was thought to have been a 1.5 out of 5 on the scale that measures their size, Mr Hobman said.
Avalanches measuring above 2 on the scale usually killed people but the way yesterday's had collected in a gully made it much more dangerous.
"It's certainly significant enough that it has made them do a full search of the area," he said.
Acting Sergeant Phill Hamlin said two officers had been stationed at the skifield base building in the afternoon and had received no reports of people missing on the skifield.
The last avalanche death in the Southern Lakes was in 2009 when snowboarder Ryan Campbell, 30, of Queenstown, was buried at the Dirty Four Creek, outside the Coronet Peak boundary.
Three years ago Queenstown resident Sam Deavoll experienced the power of an avalanche near the Remarkables chutes when he and two others were almost hit by one. Afterwards, Mr Deavoll warned of the importance of taking care when heading into the backcountry.
"You don't think of that terrain at the Remarkables as backcountry unless you're going on a day trip."
But any area that was not patrolled could be the site of a potential avalanche, he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News