A Tahoe area snowboarder hurtling through a wall of powder after triggering an avalanche at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort has drawn national attention by posting a video of his adventure online.
Now he has caught the eye of authorities, as well.
Christian Michael Mares, 29, told the ski patrol about the avalanche that sent him tumbling Jan. 15, but it was his video that helped persuade Sugar Bowl officials and the Placer County Sheriff’s Office to pursue a rare charge of criminal trespass for skiing in a closed section of the resort, resort spokesman John Monson and sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Hunt said Thursday.
The Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case and will have to decide whether to ask the Placer County District Attorney’s Office to file charges.
The inquiry was announced several days after ski instructor Carson May, 23, went missing Jan. 14 while he was believed to be skiing in Sugar Bowl off its trails. Though officials said May’s disappearance was unrelated to the Mares case, both incidents at Sugar Bowl highlighted the risks of venturing into ungroomed areas in a year when Sierra Nevada snowfall has been abundant.
The Mares case also comes as snowboarders and skiers seek greater thrills by venturing more into backcountry and off-trail areas – up 70 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to SnowSports Industries America research cited by The Associated Press. At the same time, small video cameras have given snow enthusiasts greater ability to post daring footage of their runs online.
Sugar Bowl is seeking prosecution in part because it wants to raise public awareness about the perils of skiing in areas marked as closed, Monson said. The East Palisades section called “Perco’s” where Mares was snowboarding has been closed since the 2010-11 season because of avalanche risks. Monson also said Mares could have put rescuers at risk.
“This is all about safety,” Monson said. “We want the public to know ‘closed’ means closed.”
It’s not clear how often prosecutors have sought charges against skiers or snowboarders for causing avalanches because criminal charges are often lumped in with trespassing, said Placer County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Wilson. Hunt said charges are rare but happen occasionally, particularly if they require rescue efforts.
The video, initially posted on a YouTube page with other videos apparently made by Mares, had been watched more than 70,000 times by Thursday afternoon. In the video, which is captured by a GoPro camera on the snowboarder’s helmet, someone yells out “Christian,” as the rider gets caught in the avalanche and grunts and swears as the snow pulls him down the mountain.
When he comes to a rest, the snowboarder takes off his helmet and points the camera toward himself. “Well, that just happened,” he says, out of breath and complaining about ankle pain.
Mares could not be reached for comment. However, in an interview with the Sierra Sun, Mares said the area he rode was not marked as closed. “I didn’t duck any rope – there was no ropes to be ducked,” he told the Sun.
Monson said the area is clearly marked as closed, with signs posted in both of the directions in which people would approach it.
He said Sugar Bowl has had some problems with skiers going into closed areas, which are not the same as the backcountry areas next to the resort where people sometimes ski. The resort typically responds to such actions by taking a skier or snowboarder’s season pass, but Mares doesn’t have a pass, and his actions were too serious not to pursue criminal charges, he said.