Washington leads in avalanche deaths | AspenTimes.com

Washington leads in avalanche deaths

Donna Gordon Blankinship
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

SEATTLE ” Of the 13 avalanche deaths nationally so far this winter, eight have been in Washington state, something experts blame on heavy snowfall due to the climate pattern La Nina, and on people not respecting the dangers of the backcountry.

Years of predictable weather have given people who ski, snowboard or snowmobile in Washington’s mountains a dangerous case of overconfidence, said Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute and ski patrol director at Crystal Mountain ski area.

“People in the Northwest are not used to the idea of the snowpack being sensitive,” Baugher said Thursday. He himself was buried in an avalanche at the beginning of December while on an avalanche control assignment.

The most recent Washington avalanche deaths occurred Tuesday when five snowmobilers were caught in an avalanche in the Excelsior Pass area north of Mount Baker in the northwest corner of the state. Two were killed and one injured.

In recent winters, an average of two or three people have died in avalanches in Washington state. The national average is about 25, with the most deaths in Colorado and Alaska, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho.

The center’s director, Doug Abromeit, said high winds usually make Colorado one of the most dangerous places for backcountry travel, but Colorado has had only one avalanche death this season. Wyoming has also had one, on Wednesday, and Utah has had three.

In Canada, British Columbia has had three avalanche deaths this season and so has Alberta.

Snow in Washington usually falls wet and heavy and even a deep snowpack can be solid. But this year is different, explained Kenny Kramer, avalanche meteorologist with the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

So far this year, Washington’s snowpack is 30 percent to 60 percent above normal, and the snow isn’t falling in the usual steady pattern that leaves a hard, solid snowpack, Kramer said. The conditions are similar to previous La Nina years, when avalanche deaths also increased, but not to this season’s level.

The La Nina weather system causes cooler ocean temperatures, leads to drier weather in the southern hemisphere and wetter-than-normal winters with more rain and snow in the Pacific Northwest.

December in Washington began with a storm that dropped more than 20 inches of snow in the mountains over an 18-hour period, immediately followed by warmer weather and rain. The same storm system that brought record floods to Western Washington’s lowlands brought a high avalanche danger to the mountains, Kramer said.

Even though the avalanche center issued its highest level of warning for the Cascades that weekend ” extreme danger ” some people did not pay attention and five died in two different back country avalanches. Two hikers died near Snoqualmie Pass, about 50 miles east of Seattle, and three snowboarders were buried in the backcountry north of Crystal Mountain, about 60 miles southeast of here.

“We give excellent guidance and we had it well covered in our forecast. But you have to apply that when you go on a trip. You have to make a conscious decision about that,” Kramer said.

In this week’s avalanche deaths near Mount Baker, one of the victims was a pioneering snowmobiler who had visited the areas many times before.

“People get a false sense of security,” Kramer said. “The avalanche doesn’t know that you’re familiar with the terrain or you’ve been there a hundred times.”

After the rain in early December, the snowpack refroze into a smooth, solid layer. When light, fluffy snow fell onto the hard crust, a new and different avalanche danger led to the death of a snowshoer on Dec. 18 in Mount Rainier National Park.

Then a third kind of avalanche danger developed when dense snow fell on top of the existing powder ” like a brick on top of potato chips ” and the wind picked up, creating new peaks of dangerous snow that led to the snowmobiler deaths this week, Kramer said.

Unless the forecast is for extreme avalanche danger, people can still enjoy the outdoors ” as long as they are aware of and respect the risks, Kramer said.

“You can travel in the mountains no matter what the level of danger is,” he said. “You have to plan for the conditions.”

His advice:

– Stay off steeper slopes, especially those near ridges where the snow has been packed by the wind.

– Avoid smooth, dense, steep slopes.

– Stay on lower angled slopes, ideally of less than 35 degrees, but “there’s no set angles where you’re going to be fine.”

– Make sure the slopes on which you travel are not connected to steeper open slopes above.

– Look for areas where you can ski or snowboard through the trees.

– Travel with knowledgeable partners, have the right equipment and know how to use it.

“There’s no reason to say home,” Abromeit said. “It can be horrible conditions one day and two or three days later will be perfectly safe. You just need to know when it’s safe and when it’s dangerous.”

He recommended taking an avalanche class and knowing the forecasts, which are available online.


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