Searching for one man, saving another

Amulti-day search for a missing snowboarder on Mount Shasta earlier this month couldn't save the man's life, but in a strange twist ended up saving the life of a second man.

An Ashland man was among the first to join in the rescue of a 20-year-old, Chico, Calif., snowboarder who was trapped upside down and suffocating in a tree well at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park on Feb. 19.

Two ski patrollers searching for 23-year-old Alex Gautreaux watched from a chairlift as an unidentified man toppled head-first into a snow-filled tree well at about 4:15 p.m.

The patrollers radioed the incident to other ski patrol members. But before they could arrive, David Wilkerson, 47, of Ashland, heard someone yelling for help from across the slope.

" 'This guy needs help, he's suffocating!' " Wilkerson said he heard.

Wilkerson, who was near the lift with his sons, Jas, 7, and Aidan, 5, told them to stay put and started working his way across the slope toward a waving skier.

"I was thinking 'How can somebody be suffocating on a ski run?" Wilkerson said.

When he made it to the scene, he understood. The snowboarder was upside down in at least 5 feet of snow, and all that was sticking out were his boots and pants' hemline, Wilkerson said.

"Hang on, we got you!" Wilkerson shouted to the buried snowboarder.

As he was digging him out, the snowboarder would wiggle his feet and moan, and then stiffen up, Wilkerson said.

"He could feel me digging," Wilkerson said.

Less than five minutes after Wilkerson started digging, two ski patrollers arrived to help finish the job.

"We dug him out down to his shoulders ... then we gave a big heave-ho and pulled him out," Wilkerson said.

The snowboarder, who was in respiratory distress after being freed, was transported down the mountain by ski patrol members and briefly hooked up to oxygen at the lodge before being released, said Paul Hosler, the Ski Park's ski patrol director.

"He is lucky to be alive," said Hosler. "Had this not happened in these circumstances, he wouldn't be with us."

Tree wells are formed beneath trees, whose canopies block some snow and create depressions with steep sides. Snowboarders or skiers who fall headfirst can find themselves trapped in soft snow with a steep bank on one side and a tree on the other.

The near-tragedy with the unidentified snowboarder came in the midst of the four-day search for Gautreaux, whose body was found the next morning, Feb. 20, buried in snow on the backside of Coyote run, at 6,800 feet in elevation.

At one point, about 100 volunteers searchers who came from as far away as Southern California and northern Oregon searched for Gautreaux, whose death was only the second fatality at the Ski Park in its 25-year history.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department advises that riders at the park should stick to marked paths, trails and runs and should ski or board with a partner.

"That's the big one," said Hosler. "People see lots of snow and sunny weather ... get excited and go searching ... but those things can be deadly.

"The absolute main thing is to not go alone, because you just don't know what can happen," Hosler said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4468 or e-mail

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