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Fallen Ski Patrollers Remembered

Hundreds attend service honoring three who died in an accident at Mammoth Mountain.

April 15, 2006|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

MAMMOTH LAKES — Surrounded by images of three men skiing down pristine mountain snow and the strains of the Jeff Buckley song "Last Goodbye," family and friends on Friday celebrated the lives of the three ski patrollers who died last week when snow collapsed around a volcanic vent at Mammoth Mountain.

A standing-room-only gathering of hundreds filled dim conference rooms, illuminated by soft red and orange lights on the third floor of the main lodge. Ski patrollers from previous years and from other mountains joined relatives and friends in fighting back tears during the 1 1/2- hour service honoring John "Scott" McAndrews, 37; James Juarez, 35; and Charles Walter Rosenthal, 58.

On April 6, members of the resort's ski patrol were working to dig out ski lifts and snow fences buried by severe storms. Mammoth Mountain, an 11,053-foot peak, was covered with 40 inches of snow on April 3 and 23 inches the next day.

By midmorning on the 6th, seven patrollers had started to uncover a nearly buried fence erected to keep skiers away from a crevasse created by a volcanic vent, or fumarole, on the Christmas Bowl ski run.

The mountain, part of a volcanic chain that extends to Mono Lake, is dotted with fumaroles that expel gasses, such as carbon dioxide, which usually vanish harmlessly into the air. But the heavy snowfall apparently trapped the hot fumes under the snow, carving out a deadly snow cavern.

Suddenly the snow around the crevasse caved in. McAndrews and Juarez fell about 21 feet to bare ground at the bottom. The two men shouted for help for about two minutes and then there was silence as rescuers scrambled to reach them.

Rosenthal was the first rescuer into the crevasse. He was quickly overcome by the fumes and died.

Rescuers, some who had worked around the fumarole for years, said they were initially unaware the gasses had reached a lethal concentration, believing the two fallen ski patrollers had been injured in the fall.

Seven rescuers were taken to Mammoth Hospital, suffering from difficulty breathing, nausea and a general feeling of weakness.

Most of the resort's nearly 70 ski patrollers, who are trained in first aid and rescue techniques, attended the memorial.

Michael Pipa, McAndrews' brother-in-law who had flown in from New York, saluted McAndrews' serenity in the Eastern Sierra.

Pipa said McAndrews once told a friend who chided him for not attending church, "I find God in the mountains and in the wilderness."

"I know at this moment there is a skier finding the perfect powder and carving peace and love into the hill," Pipa said. "We ask that God speed him into eternal happiness."

Dan Flynn, McAndrews' colleague on the ski patrol, remembered how thoughtful his friend was. When a fellow ski patroller mentioned in passing that he was looking for someone to resole his rock climbing shoes, McAndrews resoled the shoes and put them back inside the ski patroller's locker on the morning of the accident.

"Scott seemed to be the happiest man on this fair Earth," Flynn said. "Scott wanted everyone to have as good a time as he was having."

Austin Staunch, a member of the ski patrol, said her friend Juarez was "the brightest person in the room."

She wore a leather and fur vest that Juarez had made and praised his flair and creativity: "He was the only guy I knew that could get away with wearing feathers, fur and face paint and still be a total guy's guy."

Staunch remembered Juarez's generosity and recounted a time when he was dressed up to go out on the town, but delayed the trip when his friend got his truck stuck in mud.

Juarez took a six-pack of beer, spent two hours digging out his friend's truck and then went out on the town after that.

Juarez's aunt, America McCallisder, from San Diego, said her nephew thrived in the mountains after moving from the San Diego area.

She said he once told her, " 'I have different types of friends in the mountains. You have to take care of each other. You have to watch after each other, even when you are asleep.' "

Jeff Dozier, a professor of environmental science and management at UC Santa Barbara, said that Rosenthal always received praise whenever he gave talks at his weeklong workshop on snow science.

"Walter was a born teacher," he said. "He wanted to explain things to you." He recalled being impressed by Rosenthal's athleticism coupled with a rare intellectual curiosity.

Rosenthal liked to climb tough ascents in Yosemite National Park in the heat. Dozier said that Rosenthal would rock climb in the mornings and at dusk and spend his afternoons reading in his hammock.

Ned Bair, a member of the ski patrol, shared Rosenthal's warmth and humor by reading several e-mail messages from his friend: " 'I think I have dog DNA mixed into my genome. When I see a friend, my tail starts to wag and I start knocking things off the table.' "

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