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Ski patrol rescues snowboarder from canyon

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By Kelly LeVan

It was freezing and rapidly getting dark on Pajarito Mountain Sunday when Mica Melnikoff realized he was lost.He and his friend Kevin Smith had come up from Albuquerque to test their snowboards on Los Alamos’ ski hill. At around 3:45 p.m., following a trail around the perimeter, the two became separated. Smith ended up on top of the lifts but Melnikoff found himself climbing down the side of Pajarito Canyon, well off the trail and hip-deep in snow.“The canyon is incredibly dense – almost impassable – and a very dangerous place to be with the sun going down and temperatures hitting single digits at night,” said Eric Schaller, assistant patrol director of the Pajarito Mountain Ski Patrol, which found the disoriented, exhausted snowboarder some two hours after Smith alerted them to the situation.Smith said when he didn’t see Melnikoff come back around the trail, he asked two passers-by if they had seen a snowboarder. One had not; the other had seen Melnikoff heading down the canyon.By the time ski patrol members found Melnikoff, he was 700 vertical feet down, said Schaller, who was on patrol Sunday evening.“He was two hours into a gnarly, gnarly canyon,” he said.Daisy-chaining down the mountain and relying on headlamps, the patrol could not see very far, but “we were hollering for all we were worth,” Schaller said.Meanwhile, Melnikoff was considering the very real possibility of having to spend the night in the canyon.“They found me about 15 minutes before it got completely dark,” he said. “I was about to build an ice cave when I heard them yelling.”Once the patrol identified what Schaller referred to as a “human noise,” the crew yelled for Melnikoff to climb upward. Once Melnikoff was visible, Patrolman Matthew Hastings descended alone more than 600 vertical feet into the canyon to meet up with him and break trail as they trekked toward the rest of the patrol.Despite the long hike on extremely rough terrain, Melnikoff kept his snowboard with him the whole time, Smith said.Schaller commended Patrolmen Jeff Hill, Peter Dickson, Dave Harrington and Karl Fisher for their assistance in making the rescue a success.“By 7:30 p.m., they had Melnikoff “warm, hydrated and sipping hot chocolate ... I am so proud of our ski patrol,” Schaller said.Both Melnikoff and Smith thanked Schaller and the rest of the patrol for their help.“I have a newfound respect for the ski patrol,” Smith said. “Seeing them made me think seriously about joining a ski patrol myself.”The 69 members of the Pajarito Mountain Ski Patrol volunteer their time to conduct regular sweeps of the mountain and conduct other activities that aim to keep skiers and snowboarders safe. Ten patrol members are on duty each day at the ski hill. The group does not often conduct rescue missions, which are typically a job for search-and-rescue (SAR) crews.“(The ski patrol) really worked hard on this,” Schaller said. “It was very much above and beyond.”In an e-mailed message to the ski patrol, Field Coordinator Peter Dickson, of the New Mexico State Police Search and Rescue, wrote, “The coordinated effort that comprise the supply and rescue chain ee was very impressive, and saved considerable SAR resource deployment in difficult terrain, as well as greatly reducing the risk of injury and exposure to the subject.”The Pajarito Mountain Ski Patrol will celebrate its 60th anniversary March 7-9. More information on celebratory events will be available closer to the date.