An avalanche at Mammoth Mountain early Saturday forced the closure of the popular ski area on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and triggered search and rescue efforts, officials said.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or missing people, but emergency crews were activated, officials said.
The ski patrol was conducting avalanche hazard mitigation work when the avalanche occurred about 10:15 a.m. on the upper part of the mountain near the High Five Express chairlift area, Lauren Burke, public relations manager for Mammoth Mountain, said in a statement. Such work usually involves the use of explosive devices to demolish dangerous snow piles.
Rescue operations, which included the use of search dogs, were immediately activated.
“Three people were partially buried (in the avalanche), including one Mammoth Mountain employee,” Burke said. But “the three individuals were able to free themselves without injury.”
The area where the ski patrol had been working was closed to skiers at the time of the incident, she said. Falling avalanche debris reached the bottom of the lift and ultimately an area open to the public, Burke said.
The new slide comes after an avalanche on Friday injured two people and closed Squaw Valley ski resort near Lake Tahoe. The ski area was open on Saturday.
Heavy storms have drenched coastal areas and dumped more than 6 feet of snow in some higher elevations.
Upon hearing reports of the avalanche at Mammoth Mountain, Mammoth Hospital summoned about 20 extra doctors and nurses into work, but as of 12:45 p.m. Saturday, the hospital had not received any patients related to the event, according to an emergency room nurse who declined to give his name.
“The reports we are getting is that all employees have been accounted for, and no one has called in the number for missing loved ones,” he said.
Mammoth Mountain is about 300 miles north of Los Angeles.
The slopes were extremely crowded Saturday morning with people taking advantage of the new snowfall. As the sun came up, visitors could hear explosions on the mountain indicating that workers were using a cannon and other equipment to break up snowy overhangs that had developed overnight and could fall, triggering avalanches.
Skiers realized there had been a disaster on the mountain about 11 a.m., when chairlifts came to an abrupt halt and the air was suddenly filled with the sound of sirens blaring as emergency responders and ambulances streamed up to the resort, a witness said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.
“I was waiting to board a ski lift when it suddenly stopped working,” said Barbara Maynard of Los Angeles. “Suddenly, it was pandemonium everywhere you looked. Ambulances, police vehicles and fire engines were rolling into the area. Simultaneously, Mammoth Mountain staffers and ski patrols were roaring up the slopes on snowmobiles.”
Many people were probing for buried skiers and snowboarders on the Comeback Trail, which cuts past Chairlift 5, she said.
“Shortly before the slide, that area was very crowded,” Maynard said. “Essentially, the top of the mountain came loose in a major avalanche.”
Maynard said all members of the Mammoth Mountain ski racing team, including her 13-year-old daughter, got off the mountain safely.