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CA storm makes ripe ski conditions, snow dangers

A late winter storm that dumped at least 6 feet of snow in parts of California's Sierra Nevada created ripe conditions Friday for snow sports enthusiasts but also posed risks for back country skiers, one of whom was killed by an avalanche.

The fatality came after rescuers on snowmobiles came to the aid of three skiers Thursday on a mountain south of Alpine Meadows Resort in Placer County.

The victim had just started skiing when he triggered a wave of snow that started to drag him downslope, according to a report compiled by the Tahoe National Forest's Sierra Avalanche Center. He grabbed onto a tree to stop himself, but a deeper layer of snow came loose and pushed him down the mountain.

His partners skied down and used their avalanche beacons to find him wrapped around a tree beneath three feet of snow. It took them three minutes to dig him out, the report said. The avalanche had carried him about 450 feet.

Rescuers from the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue team were able to reach the victim about 90 minutes after the 3 p.m. accident was reported. He was taken in critical condition to a Truckee hospital, where he died later that day.

The Nevada County coroner identified him as Benjamin Brackett, 29, of Olympic Valley. The official cause of death was not immediately available.

The avalanche center report said the skiers had dropped a small overhang of snow onto the slope before they started skiing to test for avalanche danger. The overhang, called a cornice, sent a slab of snow a few inches deep down the side of the mountain.

Avalanches in the back country remained a serious danger Friday, especially slides triggered by skiers and snowmobilers, forecasters said. The risk stems from heavy slabs of new snow sitting atop old snow that has lingered through the winter.

"It's kind of like you've got a brick sitting on top of sugar," said Brandon Schwartz, a Forest Service avalanche forecaster.

Schwartz emphasized the avalanche warnings applied to the back country only as Lake Tahoe ski areas geared up for a weekend of fresh powder and sunny, mild weather after this year's first major winter storm.

Officials say much more precipitation is needed to replenish water supplies and avoid reducing allotments to farmers in coming months. The state uses reservoirs and a system of aqueducts to deliver snowmelt to 25 million Californians who depend on it for all or part of their water.

The snowfall, part of a blast from the Gulf of Alaska, fell heaviest in the Northern Sierra Nevada, with smaller readings as far south as Yosemite National Park, where chains were required.

Elsewhere, the Colorado mountains saw more than 18 inches of snow in some areas, and forecasters said Friday another 6 inches could fall before the storm front passes.

Farther east, a storm dumped nearly a foot of snow in parts of upstate New York by Thursday, a rare wallop in a season that's been unusually snowless. Snow also fell across parts of Massachusetts and southern Maine.

The snow in the northeast was welcomed by some students who got a snow day and for snow plow drivers happy to get back to work.

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