The big snow came suddenly this year, and so did the deaths on the ski slopes.
Three people died skiing or snowboarding in the Tahoe region during the last six days, a high number for a short period.
The deaths sapped an otherwise joyous occasion: The arrival of a snowstorm finally big enough to entice skiers and bolster water reservoirs.
An avalanche killed another skier earlier this month after a smaller series of storms.
Expert skiers said the deaths reiterate an old truth: New snow is wonderful for skiing and snowboarding, but it can also be dangerously unstable.
"We had 96 inches in a short time frame," said Sugar Bowl spokesman John Monson. "Before that, we didn't have much to speak of. The mountain changed dramatically. Skiers were in areas that hadn't had much activity."
Tahoe ski slopes such as Sugar Bowl have spent decades honing methods that mitigate avalanche potential and other hazards. Partially as a result, the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders enjoyed their runs without harm during the past week.
Still, skiing is an adventure sport, and risk can lead to injury. Emergency rooms in the Tahoe region and surrounding counties treated and released about 2,520 people for ski-related injuries during 2010, according to a Bee review of data from the Statewide Office of Health Planning and Development.
Another 181 patients were hospitalized due to their injuries.
Deaths are less frequent: five or so a year, usually spread out over the course of a season, according to a Bee review of media reports.
The three people killed in the past six days were:
A Gold River man trapped in snow Sunday on a ski run at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. Yiwei Hu, 54, was found in an expert ski area in the Castle Creek area of the resort. Skiers told investigators that Hu had fallen into a deep hole created by an underflow of water.
A Reno man found dead Thursday at Northstar California. Little was known about the accident that killed Scott Fritz, 51, but investigators believe he most likely hit a tree.
A 20-year-old Placer County man, Justin McCollum, who fell into a tree well while snowboarding with friends at Sugar Bowl ski resort Monday. A tree well is a section of loose snow around the trunk of a tree encased by deep snow.
Monte Hendricks, of the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol, said the deaths are a reminder that "you shouldn't do things alone."
Hendricks cited another incident earlier this week in Fresno County, where a skier was killed after falling face first into the snow. "He was locked into his bindings and suffocated," Hendricks said.
Bela Vadasz, owner and director of Alpine Skills International, cautioned that skiers and snowboarders should not become distracted. Use established runs when convenient, he said, and regularly check the terrain for depressions that might signify bad snow.
"You want to follow a line that's not going to end you up in a tree well, so stay on high ground," he said.
Each of the three recent deaths occurred within the boundaries of ski resorts, not in the more dangerous backcountry. But Tahoe ski resorts are still safe to visit, Monson said.
Ski patrols at resorts conduct avalanche inspections every day before opening. If there is any danger of an avalanche, patrols will make a ski cut by skiing across the top of an avalanche zone or even use explosive charges to dislodge snow.
At Northstar, site of one of the recent deaths, a large contingent of the staff patrols the slopes every day enforcing safety rules, said spokeswoman Jessica VanPernis.
"It's unfortunate that we've seen this many happen," Monson said of the three recent deaths. "When you get a massive amount of snow in a short period of time, it increases risk."
The risk may abate with each passing hour as snow settles, Vadasz said. Warmer temperatures are creating a cycle of melting snow that freezes, melts, and freezes again.
"That could consolidate the snow," he said, "lock it together."