JERICHO, Vt. – Six U.S. soldiers injured in an avalanche in a steep gully in Vermont during a training exercise were part of an advanced group conducting a safety appraisal of the slope and setting up a ropes course, Vermont National Guard officials said Friday.
Two soldiers remained hospitalized Friday in good and fair conditions while they recover from injuries suffered in the Wednesday avalanche. Guard officials would not describe the nature of the injuries or release their names.
The ropes course that was being set up for those participating in a lower-level course was cancelled and the training program for about 50 people wrapped up Friday. No more full courses are scheduled this winter.
Lt. Col. Matthew Brown, the commander of the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School, said the area has been used for winter training exercises since the early 1990s.
"This, to my knowledge, is the first time we have ever had a student involved in any incident like this," Brown said during a Friday news conference at the mountain school headquarters in Jericho.
Brown said safety was always paramount when conducting operations in the mountains and that an investigation would be conducted into incident.
Master Sgt. Tom Bevins, the senior non-commissioned officer who helped direct the rescue, said there have been avalanches in the area in the past, but the spot where the snow gave way was about 900 feet below where avalanches usually begin.
"It's very rare," he said.
Bevins said the snow conditions in the gully had been assessed Tuesday and earlier Wednesday.
"It looked like it was going to be a possibility that this was definitely going to be OK to travel," Bevins said. "None of us ever saw it happening where it did happen."
Guard officials said they were aware that other avalanches had been reported in recent days on Mount Mansfield, Vermont's tallest peak, where Smugglers Notch is located.
Six soldiers were carried down the gully by the snow, which traveled about 300 feet (275 meters). One of the soldiers managed to push his way to safety at the edge of the avalanche.
The other soldiers were immediately located and none were buried under the snow, Brown said. They were all evacuated to waiting ambulances within two hours.
The guard did not offer reporters access to any of the soldiers injured in the avalanche.
The Vermont National Guard founded what is now the Army's Mountain Warfare School in 1983. Soldiers from other branches of the U.S. military and other agencies and militaries from around the world have been trained in Vermont in techniques of high-altitude and mountain operations and combat.
Heavy snows have fallen in the area in recent weeks.