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Originally published March 3, 2011 at 8:43 AM | Page modified March 3, 2011 at 10:35 PM

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Hope diminishing in search for missing skier

The search continues for a missing skier at the Crystal Mountain ski area.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tips to stay safe while skiing

The Cascade Mountains have seen about 5 feet of snow in the last five days, Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol director Paul Baugher said. Skiing just after a heavy snowfall can be dangerous. Here are his tips for staying safe.

Don't go out of bounds: Skiers and snowboarders are more likely to stay safe within a designated ski area, where snow has been pre-packed.

Stay away from tree wells: The area around the base of a tree is dangerous, because the snow is loose, not packed, and is likely covering up a deep hole. Skiing in open areas with few trees is safest.

Ski in pairs: Skiers who stay together can help each other or call for help if one person gets hurt or stuck.

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The outlook is increasingly grim for a skier missing since Tuesday in the Crystal Mountain ski area.

Paul Melby, 40, was last seen in the mountain's High Campbell area, which is for advanced skiers. Searchers have combed more than once certain areas where Melby was known to ski regularly, but they haven't found any trace of him.

Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol director Paul Baugher said it's unlikely Melby is still alive or can be found; he suspects Melby fell headfirst into deep snow and is trapped.

The search for Melby will resume Friday morning but might soon have to be called off until spring, when the snow melts, Baugher said.

The mountain has seen about 5 feet of snow since the weekend, Baugher said, and much of that snow hasn't had a chance to settle. Melby could have fallen into a tree well — a pile of deep, unpacked snow under low-hanging tree branches — and could have suffocated as more snow fell.

Baugher said it's almost impossible for a skier to dig out after falling into a tree well headfirst.

"Even the most experienced skiers don't understand how easy it is to fall inside a tree well upside down," Baugher said.

At Sturtevant's, the Bellevue ski shop where Paul Melby used to work, old friends and former co-workers are worried.

Sturtevant's service-department manager Marc Morrison said Melby knows Crystal Mountain backward and forward, since he visits regularly and was once an instructor there.

Morrison believes Melby could have disappeared virtually anywhere in or around the ski area, and "that's what's probably making it hard to find him."

Like most serious skiers, Melby has a thirst for adventure, Morrison said.

"He's definitely a very outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy who's always ready to go out and play," he added.

Melby, who lives in Rochester, Thurston County, graduated from Clover Park High School in Tacoma in 1989 and worked at Sturtevant's and Crystal Mountain off and on, Morrison said.

He endured a personal crisis about 10 years ago, Morrison remembered, but "he got through it and turned his whole life around, got an education, and became a certified deep diver."

Now, Melby is a deep-sea diver at Global Diving and Salvage in Seattle.

Melby is universally liked at work and at Crystal Mountain. On Thursday, 58 advanced skiers who know him left work and other obligations to aid in the search, Baugher said.

"I've been doing this job for 30 years, and never have I seen such an outpouring of support," the Ski Patrol director said.

"To have 50 people each day who have the stamina to help in this terrain, who have the willingness to take work off, is really cool to see."

Jill Kimball: 206-464-2108 or jkimball@seattletimes.com

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