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Avid Bend skier, 58, falls into tree well, dies of suffocation at Mt. Bachelor, latest in string of such tragedies

Mt. Bachelor website page, signs at resort warn of dangers of tree well suffocation
Mt. Bachelor
Mt. Bachelor website page, signs at resort warn of dangers of tree well suffocation

(Update: Tree-well suffocation confirmed, victim identified; information on past incidents. lawsuits)

Robert Harrington, 58, was wearing helmet, found by passing skier, DCSO says

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – A 58-year-old frequent Bend skier died at Mt. Bachelor Tuesday afternoon after falling into a tree well and suffocating – a tragic incident of the kind that has claimed several lives over the years at the Central Oregon resort and elsewhere, prompting numerous safety reminders when the deep-snow danger rises.

Shortly before 2 p.m. Tuesday, Mt. Bachelor Ski Patrol received a report of an unresponsive male resort guest in the far West Bowls area off Northwest Express, resort Director of Marketing and Communications Lauren Burke said.

Emergency personnel and Deschutes County sheriff’s deputies responded shortly after 2 p.m. to the report of the unresponsive man in the West Bowls area, Lieutenant Mike Sundberg said.

Sundberg said another skier who was passing by found the man, identified as Robert Douglas Harrington, in a tree well and was first to begin performing life-saving techniques, including CPR.

Mt. Bachelor Ski Patrol and Bend Fire & Rescue medics continued emergency medical care while Harrington was taken by snowmobile to the onsite medical facility at the West Village Ski Patrol room, officials said.

Resuscitation efforts proved unsuccessful, and Harrington was pronounced deceased at 3:12 p.m., Burke and Sundberg said.

“Mr. Harrington was an avid skier and was wearing a helmet at the time of the incident,” Sundberg said in Wednesday’s update. He had accessed the Northwest Express lift and was discovered unresponsive in a tree well by a citizen about 30 minutes later.

Harrington “was found to be suffering from the effects of snow immersion suffocation,” the lieutenant said, a finding confirmed by the Deschutes County medical examiner.

“There was no evidence of trauma to Mr. Harrington,” Sundberg added, “and his helmet was not damaged.”

The lieutenant said of the "very sad situation, "apparently he was a very skilled skier who was up there solo."

Burke said of Wednesday's news, "Our team is devastated for Bob, his family and his friends."

She had said Tuesday, “The entire Mt. Bachelor team extends their deepest condolences and thoughts to the family and friends of the guest.”

Like many other ski resorts, Mt. Bachelor has increased its messages and warnings to visitors on-site, online and through the media over the years due to similar past tragic tree-well suffocation incidents. Their current information is on this page, urging guess to “always ski or ride with a buddy in sight.”

"Tree wells are formed when snow accumulates around the base of a tree but not under the lower hanging branches, creating deep pockets of soft, unstable snow," the resort's warning states.

"A tree well or snow immersion suffocation (SIS) accident can happen when a skier or snowboarder falls, usually headfirst, into a tree well or deep loose snow and becomes immobilized. Similar to the effects of an avalanche, the incident can leave the skier buried without air, leading to suffocation," the Mt. Bachelor page adds.

Tuesday's death was the fifth tree-well death at Mt. Bachelor in six years and the sixth in the last 22 years.

Last June, a Deschutes County jury ruled in favor of Mt. Bachelor after several days of testimony in a $15 million wrongful death lawsuit brought against the resort by the father of Alfonso Braun, of Bend, one of two people who died in tree wells on the same day in March 2018.

A joint wrongful death lawsuit was filed in February 2020 by the father of Braun and skier Nicole Panet-Raymond, 19, of Eugene, each seeking 15 million in damages. The cases were separated in 2022. An annual report on the case, filed in January of this year, indicated the trial of that wrongful death lawsuit is scheduled to begin on Sept. 17.

There have been other fatal crashes and incidents at the resort over the years, but the 2018 tree-well deaths were the first in 16 years, since snowboarder Kate Svitek, 22, of Bend, died after falling into a tree well in February 2002 after becoming separated from friends. Her parents created a foundation in her memory that has helped promote dozens of programs for environmental awareness and conservation.

In March of 2019, another experienced skier, Kenneth Brundidge, 53, of Oregon City, died after getting caught in a tree well at the resort. He, too, had become separated from his group while skiing west of Sparks Lake Run, served by the Northwest lift, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office said at the time.

Birkan Uzun, 28, a noted mountaineer and outdoorsman from Cyprus, living in Seattle, died after falling into a tree well at Mt. Bachelor in December 2021.

Article Topic Follows: Deschutes County

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Barney Lerten

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