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Published: Sunday, December 25, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Backcountry safety: A look at the dangers of winter

  • Everett Mountain Rescue and Snohomish County Search and Rescue teams train for avalanche rescue in 2007 near Stevens Pass. During an avalanche probe s...

    Everett Mountain Rescue

    Everett Mountain Rescue and Snohomish County Search and Rescue teams train for avalanche rescue in 2007 near Stevens Pass. During an avalanche probe search, team members line up in a row and carefully probe the snow to search for a missing person.

  • Herald coverage of the 1910 Wellington avalanche.

    Herald coverage of the 1910 Wellington avalanche.

The Cascade Range entices thousands of outdoor enthusiasts to explore its snow-capped mountains each winter. Avalanche danger comes with the territory. Weakened snowpack gives way and slides. Experts, such as meteorologist Kenny Kramer of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, urge caution because of how quickly the avalanche conditions change. In recent decades, more than 100 people, including several from Snohomish County, have died in Washington avalanches, making it the state's leading cause of natural-disaster deaths.

Recent incidents in the Cascades

The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center keeps a log of avalanches. Here's a selection of modern-era incidents at nearby destinations:

March 22, 2011: Back side of Cowboy Mountain west of Stevens Pass. "Snowboarder triggered and caught by wet loose slide, swept into tree band and fatally injured. Found quickly by party members but failed to respond to CPR."

Feb. 1, 2001: Red Mountain just north of Snoqualmie Pass. "Solo backcountry skier triggered cornice collapse and was caught, buried and killed by subsequent fall and loose avalanche."

Dec. 4, 2010: Morning Star Peak east of Granite Falls. "One hiker-climber caught, partially buried and killed; dog recovered alive."

Jan. 4, 2008: Lake Twenty-Two trail near Mount Pilchuck. "Group of seven young hikers and one adult were descending the Lake Twenty-Two trail when four of the party were caught by an avalanche. The slide partially buried one and totally buried three. Two buried victims were quickly found by spot probing and survived; unfortunately the one fatality was buried more deeply near a tree and was not recovered until later by a rescue team."

Dec. 2, 2007: Snow/Source Lake Trail, near Snoqualmie Pass. "Three hikers caught, one partly buried, injured and self rescued, two completely buried and killed ..."

Avalanche facts

• The majority of Northwest avalanche incidents occur in December and January, when there is generally weaker snowpack in the mountains. Even so, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center warns that "avalanche danger should be a year-round concern, as fatalities and accidents occur in almost every month of the year."
• From 1950 through 2010, 108 people died in avalanches in Washington state.
• Avalanche fatalities are the leading cause of deaths by natural disaster in Washington state.
• On March 1, 1910, the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history killed 96 people in the small railroad town of Wellington on the west side of Stevens Pass.
• Two-thirds of avalanche deaths nationwide over the past 10 years involved snowmobiles or backcountry skiing.

Mountain safety tips

Beware of avalanches: Check the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center's forecasts at or call 206-526-6677 before venturing outside.

Travel in pairs: If you become trapped, your partner is your best chance for a rescue. Cell phones rarely work in the backcountry, and help could be hours away.

Be properly equipped: In addition to the Mountaineers list of the 10 essentials, each person should wear an avalanche beacon, a device that can speed rescues. Carry snow shovels and avalanche probes. Wear wool and other appropriate fabrics, not cotton, and bring extra clothes.

Take a class: Courses are offered to teach how to anticipate avalanches, judge snowpack strength and more safely navigate deep, heavy snow.

Eat and drink: Be sure to stay hydrated and eat small snacks frequently to keep fueled.

Plan for early nightfall: There are fewer hours of daylight in the winter. It can get dark even earlier in the mountains, because mountain peaks block light late in the day.

Communicate: Tell friends or family where you are going, the route you plan to take and when you expect to return.

Get gas: It's good to make sure you've got at least a half-tank of gas in your vehicle in case someone needs to get help or a pass is closed for avalanche control.

More information

• Everett Mountaineers:
• Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center:

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