A 28-year-old La Pine man – the son of the owners of Paulina Lake Lodge – was killed Sunday afternoon when a 200-yard-wide avalanche buried him and his snowmobile during an outing near the base of Paulina Peak east of La Pine, authorities confirmed late Sunday night.
The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office got a call around 3:30 p.m. of a snowmobile rider trapped beneath the snow that rumbled down the peak onto open terrain near a popular riding area known as the Paulina Peak Playground, said Lt. Scott Shelton, special services coordinator.
Kyle James Thomas was riding with two other experienced riders when the avalanche hit. The others avoided being caught and immediately began to search for Thomas, joined by other riders in the area as word quickly spread of what had happened.
The avalanche was estimated at about 200 yards wide and 75 to 100 feet long, with a debris field estimated at 3-5 feet in depth, Shelton said. It occurred on the north face of the 7,989-foot peak, at an elevation of about 7,300 feet, on a slope of about 35 degrees, he added.
Sheriff’s deputies, Oregon State Police and U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers arrived in the area around 5:45 p.m., with SAR units starting to arrive around 20 minutes later.
Several responding rescue teams, highly trained in avalanche behavior, avoidance and rescue, said “the area where the missing snowmobile rider was last seen was still hazardous in nature and were looking for other means of mitigating further risk to rescuers prior to assisting with the search,” Shelton said in a news release.
Around 5:50 p.m., family members and others who were searching reported they had found Thomas. About 20 minutes later, deputies verified that he had died at the scene, and SAR volunteers and deputies removed him from the area. His snowmobile was found buried nearby, Shelton said.
The avalanche area was not a groomed trail, as the snowmobilers were crossing open terrain, the lieutenant said.
Shelton said the two-hour time frame for SAR response was "phenomenal -- you can't be faster." A command post was set up at the Ten Mile Sno-Park, and there were reports rescuers might need to snowshoe in, rather than use snowmobiles, due to the conditions and threat of further slides.
Shelton noted that the snow "compresses in" during and after an avalanche, becoming "just like concrete," comparing it to the hardened mud being encountered by searchers after the Washington state landslide.
As for the need to wait and find a safe path to the slide zone, Shelton said it was "very tough on our team. We were trying to find a way to get in there" safely, but he added, "We can't rescue the rescuers."
Shelton said the tragedy serves as a painful reminder for “those who recreate in winter wilderness areas to be extremely cautious of changing conditions, to be properly equipped for the conditions, and knowledgeable of the areas where they will recreate.”
He also said Sheriff’s Search and Rescue wanted to “caution the public that the snowpack is highly variable this season and requires extra caution and vigilance when traveling in the backcountry.”
Paulina Peak is south of Paulina Lake and is the highest point on the Newberry Volcano, located in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
Todd and Karen Brown own the lodge, where Thomas also worked as a manager, according to his Facebook page; a Sunriver Adventures page from early January at Village Properties' Website referred to Thomas as "loud and larger than life."
Four years ago, in January 2010, an experienced snowmobile rider, Westley Amos, 28, of La Pine, was killed when he was hit by a 200-yard-wide avalanche near Paulina Peak. That slide occurred in a nearby riding area called the "Roller Coaster," south of the Obsidian flow.
Nearly two years earlier, a skier from Bend was rescued from the peak after triggering an avalanche that threw him into a rock wall, injuring his knee. Other skiers said they, too, had set off avalanches on the peak's weather-exposed slopes.