People may see snow in the hills and holidays on their calendars, but Christmas weekend won’t be great for a backcountry romp.
Avalanche danger is moderate to extreme in northeastern Washington and North Idaho, U.S. Forest Service and backcountry outfitters say.
Within the past two weeks, a group of Spokane skiers triggered an avalanche on Moon Pass between Wallace and Avery, Idaho.
One skier was carried 600 feet and buried up to his neck. But he was not seriously injured and was rescued by his companions. Details weren’t available, but “it’s really very dangerous right now,” said Chic Burge of Coeur d’Alene, who teaches snow safety courses and is a member of the Spokane Mountaineers.
There are about 6 inches of hoarfrost buried under 18 inches of snow, Burge said. “It’s not real safe to be out there unless you are highly prepared.”
The problem stems from the cold, clear weather in the backcountry, says Terri Matthews of Peak Adventures. That causes formation of beautiful crystals - also called hoarfrost - on top of the snow pack.
Although these sparkling crystals make for beautiful backcountry days, they are unstable because they don’t bond well with other layers of snow, she said. Matthews, who operates the backcountry outfitting operation with her husband in the St. Joe drainage, also rates avalanche danger at moderate to high.
North and eastern facing slopes, southwestern slopes, steep slopes and leeward slopes are the most dangerous. In more stable areas there is light powder snow, providing for excellent skiing, Matthews said.
The U.S. Forest Service is rating weekend avalanche danger at “considerable” and says human-triggered avalanches are “probable.”
There’s about 50 inches of snow above the 5,000-foot level and 18 inches of that have fallen in the last week. Until there are warmer temperatures and stable weather at higher elevations, the avalanche danger will continue to be high, the Forest Service said.
The National Weather Service in Spokane is predicting low clouds and fog Friday morning, with lows of 15-20 degrees and high temperatures in the 25- to 30-degree range. The Saturday forecast shows a chance of snow, with temperatures possibly hitting 35 degrees.
Sunday, the forecast calls for snow turning to rain up to 5,000 feet.
“Backcountry travelers should use extreme caution if they venture off designated cross country and snowmobile trails this week, and stay away from north and east facing slopes and open slopes - especially the slopes that show considerable wind loading,” said Bob Kasun of the Forest Service.
Matthews and Burge strongly recommend people carry an avalanche emergency transmitter, a shovel and a probe and take an avalanche course. “Those aren’t shields of invincibility,” Matthews cautioned. “It doesn’t mean if you are caught in a slide there won’t be trauma.”
Advanced first aid classes are quite important, she said.
Peak Adventures teaches avalanche safety, but has only one beginners class still open. It will take place Feb. 9 and 10 and includes mock rescues in the field.
Burge, representatives of the medical community, outdoor community and law enforcement will team up in January for free lectures on avalanche safety. The beginner class runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Jan. 14 at North Idaho College’s Boswell Hall.
The advanced course is Jan. 21 from 6 to 10 p.m. at Boswell Hall.
Dying in an avalanche is a distinct possibility in the region. An Oldtown, Idaho, man was killed by an avalanche last March while snowmobiling in Bonner County.
Avalanches also killed a snowmobiler in Western Montana’s Beaverhead Mountains and a snowboarder in Utah last winter.
A Kellogg man last winter escaped with a near miss while snowmobiling in North Idaho.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FOR INFORMATION For up-to-date avalanche information, call the Forest Service’s information line at (208) 765-7414 or visit its Web site at http://www.fs.fed.us/outernet/ipnf/avalanche.html