Three members of a ski patrol died after two plunged into a volcanic fissure at the Mammoth Mountain resort and the third fell trying to rescue them, a resort official said.
Four other would-be rescuers were hospitalized for exposure to carbon dioxide but were doing well, said Rusty Gregory, chief executive officer of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
The patrol team had been on the mountain after a snowstorms checking on a fence surrounding a fumarole, a natural vent that releases volcanic gas from deep within the Earth, Gregory said.
“It’s not like they were out there cowboying,” he said.
The fence was partially buried, and as two members of the patrol tried to raise it, the snow under them collapsed and they fell to the rocky bottom of a 6-foot-diameter hole, Gregory said.
Two other patrollers tried to help, but one of them also fell in. The fourth used a rope to lower himself into the hole, where he was overcome by the gas.
Only the last man was rescued in time, and he and his rescuers all had to be treated for carbon dioxide exposure.
The three deaths were likely from a lack of oxygen, which is displaced by carbon dioxide, Mono County coroner Ralph Obenberger said Friday.
The victims were identified Friday as Charles Walter Rosenthal, 58, of Sunnyslopes; John Scott McAndrews, 37, of Bishop; and James Jinkuk Juarez, 35, of the Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills.
Rosenthal worked at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Laboratory in Mammoth Lakes and was a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said UCSB spokesman Paul Desruisseaux. He was an expert in snow hydrology and was identified as the snow and avalanche analyst for Mammoth Mountain.
Mammoth Lakes Mayor Rick Wood said a police detective indicated a significant amount of gas at the fumarole. Carbon dioxide emissions from the ground have previously been linked to die-offs of trees in the region and have forced campground closures.
The mountain, about a six-hour drive north of Los Angeles, is popular with skiers. The peak towers over a dramatic landscape in a volcanically active region, but that region has been quiet for six years, said Dave Hill, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He said the accident was not related to volcanic activity.
The tragedy was the latest in a string of accidents at Mammoth, where four skiers have died in a season marked by a record 52 feet of snowfall since October.
“It’s just guys doing a job and it’s just an accident,” said Shon Eastridge, a gas station clerk. “They were just trying to protect other people’s lives and they lose their own.”