Emanuel Storaunet, 21, was found dead at midday Saturday after an avalanche in Fardalen.
"We don't know the cause of the avalanche that was triggered," said Christian Svarstad, a police chief lieutenant for The Governor of Svalbard who was the scene commander during the search for victims. "The snow was unstable because of the weather situation we had during those days. We don't want to speculate whether he was high marking. We don't have tracks that can tell us anything about that and we found no GPS."
"High marking" refers to driving a snowmobile as far as possible up a mountainside.
Svarstad said there generally is little risk of remotely triggering an avalanche if one is not trying to drive up the mountainside. By charging at the snow some distance from the hillside, unstable surfaces can spread upward and eventually trigger an avalanche.
The governor's office doesn't know when the avalanche occurred, but has confirmed Storaunet went out with a snowmobile registered in his name Saturday morning. Storaunet, a mechanic at the Longyearbyen equipment rental shop Ingeniør G. Paulsen, was a snowmobiling enthusiast with extensive experience.
Sounding a full alarm
At 11:39 a.m. Saturday, a call came in to the governor's duty officer. Snowmobilers passing through the valley about seven kilometers south of Longyearbyen reported an avalanche had occurred, but they weren't sure when.
"We had no indications that there were people in the avalanche," Svarstad said. "But when we got the message there was an avalanche in Fardalen we raised a full alarm because we know that it is one of the most popular routes used from Longyearbyen."
He and two members of the Longyearbyen Red Cross' avalanche rescue group were the first prepared, and they departed immediately for Fardalen. On the west side of the valley, a little below the so-called Fardalsbakken, an avalanche about a kilometer wide had been triggered, a portion of which was covering a snowmobile trail. They began searching the area closest to Fardalsbakken with standard avalanche transceivers and a dog. A rescue helicopter began searching farther down the avalanche area.
Spotting a snowmobile ski
"At 12:45 p.m. the helicopter notified us that they had observed possible wreck residue in the avalanche," Svarstad said. "Five to ten minutes later we ascertained that it was a snowmobile. Under the snow, in conjunction with the snowmobile, we found a person. That was about five minutes later."
The helicopter had spotted one of the snowmobile's ski tips. Storaunet was found one-half to one-and-a-half meters beneath the tigthtly packed snow without an avalanche transceiver.
"It can be mainly be used for rescues," Svarstad said. "It would not have made any practical difference."
Storaunet was found on a relatively flat portion of a brink on the west side of the valley, about 30 meters above a riverbed where the snowmobile trail runs.
High avalanche risk
After Storaunet was found, additional avalanche rescuers were called out. Eventually 16 people from the Red Cross, two from the governor's office, the avalanche-trained dog and the rescue helicopter participated in the effort.
"At that time we had something concrete to relate to and searched near where we made the discovery," Svarstad said. "Then we searched over large parts of the avalanche area afterwards."
Rescue crews did not search a portion of the avalanche field because they considered the risk too high. In the "bowl" of the mountain, it was still snowing.
"We could not guarantee the safety of the crew," Svarstad said.
The governor's office received multiple inquires from people concerned about someone who had departed on a trip.
"Eventually we checked them out and got good enough indications that they were not in the avalanche, although one can never be 100 percent certain," Svarstad said.
The rescue operation was called off at 5:30 p.m. The snowmobile was removed roughly from the snowpack and the victim was flown to Longyearbyen.
Good judgement essential
The kilometer-wide avalanche is regarded as very large in size. There was mild weather, strong winds and blowing snow for several days last week, which increases the risk of avalanches. After Saturday's snow slide, the governor's office issued a warning urging people to avoid snowmobiling in Fardalen.
"We want the population to be taking avalanches into consideration," Svarstad said. "Even in one of the most trafficked valleys near Longyearbyen, an avalanche went over the snowmobile trail. People must take an assessment of the weather and snow conditions when they are going out on trips."