CSAC Avalanche Incident

Donner Summit California - February 11, 1998

[Official Reports] [Media Reports] [Other Sources]

Official Reports

Report by Bob Moore, USFS

On Feb 12, 1998 a 22 year old snowboarder was killed in an avalanche near Donner Summit. The incident occured at approximately 1120 hrs. He was ascending a ridge behind (south) of the ASI building, he reached a point known as "Off The Wall", when he reportably worked his way out on to the cornice to determine where he was.

The cornice failed, he fell vertically 15-20', the slope below avalanched with this shock causing a class 2 ss slide. It ran about 400' vertically, crown line of 8" to 24", this was new snow. It was about 150' wide. This is a true north facing slope. The deposition was estimated at about 8' deep max. The elevation at the top of the ridge is approximately 7200', the toe of the slide ended at 6815'.

He was with 3 friends, they did not have beacons, probes or shovels with them. They were able to call for help via a cell phone with the 911 system. Search and rescue was accomplished by Sugar Bowl Ski Patrol (with avalanche dogs), Donner Ski Ranch Patrol, Boreal Ski Areas Patrol, Donner Summit FD personnel, USFS personnel, Nevada County SO, Placer County SO and CHP. There was a total of about 45 rescuers involved. The victim was found approximately 1 hour after first notification, he was recovered with a slight pulse, advanced life support was initiated, he was transported to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee and pronounced.

The victim was a pro with Burton Snowboards, he and his group were going to film some boarding that day in the fresh powder. Newspaper accounts say he was a contender for the US Snowboarding Olympic team. He and his party had been snowboarding for more than a week in the Tahoe-Donner Summit area. They were all from back east. This particular chute is seldom skied or boarded due to poor access with a large cornice buildup.

During the past 2 weeks we have had nearly continuous storms. We have received approximately 9' of new snow out of the series. Adjacent to the avalanche site there was evidence of considerable activity that had occured in the past 24 hours during the last storm. I also suspect the entire ridge, including, "Off the Wall" chute had avalanched very large sometime over the weekend.

The cornice that failed I estimated to be from 4-10' overhang, this is very typical for this year along the ridgetops. I believe that the lst 6-12" developed during the last storm.

This particular area is readily accessed from Old Highway 40, it is about a 20 minute hike up the ridge from the parking area. It is about 1/2 mile from Sugar Bowl Ski area and can be accessed from the ski area.

The entire area from Old 40 to Donner Peak is very heavily used by local boarders and skiers, local high school kids will travel up old 40 and make the circuit several times after school. On big weekends parking is not available due to the users.

This is a very high profile incident. It has hit all the local and regional press, much interviewing on TV, radio and the newspapers. The Forest Service snow conditions report for 2/12 had a strong warning about the unstable cornice conditions in the backcountry.

Media Reports

Avalanche in Sierra Kills Snowboarder

Glen Martin, Dan Levy, Chronicle Staff Writersbr Thursday, February 12, 1998

A 22-year-old snowboarder, who narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, died yesterday after being buried in a backcountry avalanche near Donner Summit -- apparently while being filmed by three friends for a video, authorities said.

Jamil Khan of Gloversville, N.Y., was trapped beneath the slide around 11:40 a.m. and was not recovered by search-and-rescue crews until 12:40 p.m., according to the Nevada County Sheriff's Department.

His body was taken by a California Highway Patrol helicopter to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee minutes after being freed from the snow.

Emergency room doctors spent about 10 minutes trying to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead at 1:58 p.m., said nursing supervisor Deb Gabites. Khan had competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials and just missed making the inaugural U.S. Olympic snowboard team, now in Nagano, Japan.

A Nevada County sheriff's dispatcher said Khan and his three companions were experienced snowboarders who apparently entered the ungroomed and unmarked area near Donner Summit with the idea of making a video.

"He was supposedly a pro snowboarder, making a film with his buddies," said dispatcher Sherri Wood. "His friends had a camera."

The avalanche occurred as Khan was atop the ``Poop Chute,'' a region behind Donner Ski Ranch marked by steep pitches and cornices, the Placer County Sheriff's Department said.

"He was apparently up on a cornice that collapsed under him,'' said Joseph Ferrerra, a spokesman for Tahoe Forest Hospital. "It was the wrong place at the wrong time." Khan's friends may have been farther down the slope, filming him when the snow gave way and engulfed him, rescue crews said.

His friends tried to find him under the cascade of snow, but were unsuccessful and used a cellular phone to call for help, said the Placer County Sheriff's Department.

An overnight storm had dumped a foot of fresh powder in the Lake Tahoe region, adding to the several feet that had fallen in the previous week.

And backcountry ski conditions yesterday were described as hazardous by locals who are wary of how unstable the snow can be.

"Avalanche hazards have been very high," said nursing supervisor Gabites. "It takes days for snow to settle."

Rich Holiday, a ski instructor at Donner Ski Ranch who watched the rescue efforts from the resort, said the Poop Chute is an out-of- bounds area that is popular with advanced skiers.

"It's in the Tahoe National Forest," he said. "It isn't part of any of the resorts, though you can get to it from one chair in Sugar Bowl. Probably about 30 skiers a day go down it."

Holiday said the "crack" that marked the beginning of the avalanche occurred lower than is typical for steep chutes.

"A more experienced skier may not have had the same difficulty, because he probably would have been in the middle of the chute where the snow is more stable," Holiday said.

"As I understand it, (the victim) was over on the far-left side."

Although the area is considered untamed, it is only about three miles south of Interstate 80 and easily accessible.

"You can jump out of your car, throw on your skis and be in the backcountry in 10 minutes," said Gabites, the nursing supervisor. "Signs say you're leaving the safety area."

Sierra slopes hit by tragedy: Avalanche kills top snowboarder

By Wayne Wilson and Bill Lindelofbr Sacramento Bee Staff Writersbr (Published Feb. 12, 1998)br

TRUCKEE -- A small avalanche Wednesday at Donner Summit killed a 22-year-old nationally recognized snowboarder who was with three friends looking for a good spot for a run, officials said.

Before his friends' horrified eyes, Jamil Kahn of Gloversville, N.Y., was swept away in a mass of snow plunging down a rugged mountain slope on U.S. Forest Service land near Donner Ski Ranch, officials said.

Placer County Sheriff's Deputy Bert Houser said Kahn was standing on a cornice of ice and snow off Donner Pass Road in an area known as the "Poop Chute" when it gave way at 11:20 a.m.

Moments earlier, Kahn had radioed his friends standing on a plateau across a gully, Houser said, and they looked to see where he was just as the avalanche engulfed their friend. They immediately called 911 on a cellular phone.

Rescue workers from the U.S. Forest Service, Sugar Bowl Ski Patrol, Donner Summit Fire Department and Placer County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue rushed to the scene, where an avalanche dog found Kahn buried beneath 3 feet of snow.

Houser said Kahn had a weak pulse when he was pulled from the snow, despite having been buried more than 80 minutes. Rescue workers tried to resuscitate him as he was flown in a helicopter to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee, where he was later pronounced dead.

Hospital spokesman Joseph Ferrerra said the victim's companions were "very upset and wanted to be with their friend the entire time they were here."

Kahn was a highly ranked snowboarder who competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials and just missed making America's first Olympic snowboard team, now in Nagano, Japan.

"He was an awesome guy," said Joe Curtes, of Colorado, a competitor who has known Kahn for four years. "He was great to be around, talkative, he enjoyed having fun. And he loved to goof around and make people laugh."

Kahn enjoyed jazz and funk/rap music, videography, drinking coffee, and surfing "big air" on a snowboard, according to a promotional interview for the Burton snowboard company, for which he helped develop clothing and boards.

"Off the snow, I am like (John) McEnroe," he said in the interview. "I play tennis, skateboard, I play basketball, soccer, all that jazz."

Kahn, who was single, said he has been one of America's top nine competitive male snowboarders for the past three years and recently was ranked second.

Barry Dugan, a Burton spokesman, said Kahn attended college in Plattsburgh, N.Y. and was a "very bright young man, with incredible talent, and he was very driven to succeed."

"He also was a very colorful character with a sly sense of humor," Dugan said. "His life was worth a tremendous amount. This (accident) is devastating. It hits home to snowboarders from coast to coast."

The Donner Summit avalanche occurred just days before one of the most popular skiing weekends in the Sierra.

Attendance for the upcoming holiday weekend is expected to be high because of major snowfall last week when a series of potent storms left up to 8 feet of powder, prompting avalanche warnings for much of the Sierra.

The avalanche warning in effect last weekend was terminated Tuesday with an ominous warning: "Snow conditions are good for all off-track activities. Cornices, however, will continue to be a problem. Yesterday, recent cornice falls were observed in the backcountry, along with evidence of large avalanches."

"The avalanche occurred because the individual was standing on a cornice," Ann Westling, spokeswoman for the Tahoe National Forest, said Wednesday.

A cornice is an area where snow has built up and wind has blown out snow underneath it -- a precipice of snow and ice made all the more dangerous when the Sierra gets fluffy snow, as it did last week.

"People should be very cautious of being on cornices," Westling said.

Ski resort and highway crews over the weekend worked to control avalanches in the Lake Tahoe area by setting off explosives at ski resorts and along highway passes.

The potential for avalanche is determined during and after a snowfall. Officials suggest that anyone planning to enter the backcountry first call the avalanche hotline at 530-587-2158. The Sierra does not see many fatal avalanches compared to states such as Colorado. However, the worst ski-area disaster in U.S. history occurred at Alpine Meadows on March 31, 1982.

A 30-foot-high wall of snow plowed through the main ski lodge and other buildings at 80 mph, ripped away chairlifts and buried the parking lot in 10 to 20 feet of snow. Seven people died.

Five days later, rescue workers uncovered Anna Conrad, a lift operator, who survived her icy prison in a pocket of air.

Wednesday's fatality occurred at a site that is not a designated ski area and where avalanche control is not practiced.

"We don't do avalanche control in the backcountry," said Westling. "This individual was in the backcountry even though it was near the road. It was not in a developed ski area."

There have been 18 avalanche fatalities in the United States this winter. Kahn's death was the first this season for California.

Of those killed, the largest group is snowmobilers, followed by climbers and cross-country skiers.

Family, friends grieve for Gloversville snowboarder

22-year-old who just missed making U.S. Olympic team died in California avalanche

Times Union, Albany, NYbr First published on Friday, February 13, 1998

MIKE HUREWITZ, Staff writer

His brother describes him as a devout young man who helped give the sometimes-shaky image of snowboarding a good name.

The international winter-sports community remembers him as one of America's best snowboarders, an athlete who narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team and who was featured last year in a national snowboarding magazine.

Jamil Khan, 22, of Gloversville died Wednesday when an avalanche in California buried him in front of his horrified friends.

"He just enjoyed the sport and wasn't the kind of kid who would fall into the pressures of worldly things," said his brother Saraj, 24. "He was a pretty religious kid, a Muslim."

"And he was pretty much an ambassador to snowboarding," Saraj said proudly.

Khan, who polished his early skiing skills on Royal Mountain at Caroga Lake, was making a film on snowboarding when he was swept down a rugged mountain slope near Donner Ski Ranch and buried under three feet of snow.

His friends tried to dig him out and then called 911 on a cellular phone.

When a dog trained for avalanche rescues found him he had been buried for about an hour, but still had a weak pulse.

He was flown by helicopter to Tahoe Forest Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

According to Saraj, his brother was an avid outdoorsman. "He didn't fear the mountain, but he did respect it. He was definitely not a reckless kid."

He said his brother loved poetry, jazz and gourmet food.

"He had a love of life, enjoying the moment, and I think snowboarding was part of that," Saraj said.

"He was a good representative for snowboarding," said Danny Canton, manager of the Alpin Haus sports shop in Amsterdam. "He was clean-cut. He didn't do the routine with long hair and all the earrings. He'd be the kind of guy you'd want representing your product."

Canton, an avid skier, said he was one of many who initially felt resistant to the snowboarders' legitimacy on the mountain, and the shop was slow to sell snowboarding equipment.

"He was responsible for convincing us to get involved," said Canton. Khan acted as a mediator between skiers and snowboarders, ultimately convincing both groups that they had a natural camaraderie, Canton said.

"He said it was just a different way of sliding down the hill and he wanted us to get into it because he knew it was a fun sport," Canton said. "I respect him for it."

Khan's father, Moin, was born in Pakistan and settled in Brattleboro, Vermont where Jamil, Saraj and their sister Nadia, now 21, spent their childhood. Their father died of cancer 14 years ago. Three years later the family moved to Gloversville, where their mother Alia married Dr. Aziz Rehman.

Khan graduated in 1993 from Broadalbin-Perth High School where he was an all-star soccer player.

"He was a gentleman, a good student, and very physically fit," said Robin Blowers, the school's principal.

She described him as energetic, "in perpetual motion -- but not disruptive in the least," and very popular.

"When I think of Jamil, I think of him walking down the hall with a huge grin from ear to ear,'' she said.

The school had been following his career and had displayed the copy of Snowboard magazine that featured him in an article.

"He has become a role model to our students. We are totally devastated," Blowers said. "It's a great loss, a terrible thing and we grieve for the family."

Khan was an early admission student at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, attending for one year before transferring to the State University College at Plattsburgh where he was an English major.

He left college in December 1996, according to a Plattsburgh spokesman, "to pursue his dreams of becoming an Olympic contender in snowboarding at Nagano, Japan."

"Many of his fellow students and faculty here had hoped that this would be his year competing in the first-ever Olympics competition for snowboarding. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family," said Plattsburgh State President Horace Judson.

Khan competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials, finishing second in a December qualifier. He finished lower in the two January trials and just missed a spot in the inaugural competition going on in Japan.

Funeral services are scheduled for noon Sunday at the Ker-Westlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro, Vt.

"A lot of the snowboard riders will be coming," Saraj said softly.

Other Sources

The following information was submitted by an AnyForm user:

Date = 02-11-98br

Comments: Hasty Report: 1 snowboarder was killed today on Donner Summit while shooting video. Intial reports state that the individual was standing on a cornice when it broke triggering a slide that ran 60 - 70 feet. The victim was not wearing a transceiver. He was buried for 50 minutes, until a probe search found him.