Avalanches this season already have killed 14 people in the region, and conditions are not expected to get any better.
“People think that because we have a below-normal snowpack, everything is cool,” said Bob Kasun, a Forest Service hydrologist.
But an early, shallow snowpack, followed by a long cold spell, created a rotten layer of snow and frosted it with slick crystals called surface hoar.
That’s like an ice rink sitting on top of an unstable layer of snow. The snow that continues to fall this week is adding unstable layers of snow to unstable layers of snow.
“Right now, it’s very critical,” Kasun said. And “it’s a problem that’s going to be with us for quite some time.”
That means high avalanche danger above 5,000 feet. That’s grim news on the heels of one of the worst weekends on record for avalanche fatalities.
Searchers continue to look for the body of a snowmobiler near Island Park, Idaho. They recovered the body of Kevin Tew of Idaho Falls near his snowmobile Sunday.
Two snowmobilers were killed in a Montana avalanche and another in Canada. The most sweeping tragedy took six skiers in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in British Columbia. Three other skiers died elsewhere in the Canadian province.
One hiker and one snowboarder were killed in Alaska in November. All of this puts the 1997-98 season well on the way to matching last year’s 37 fatalities, including three in Idaho, due to avalanches.
Last year’s massive snowfall was partly to blame for the avalanches. And in past years, higher snowfall seemed to be tied to more avalanche deaths.
“We’ve always had these conditions,” Kasun said. “Now, more and more people are out there; they have better access, so it doesn’t really take high avalanche danger.”
Bigger, beefier snowmobiles are part of the reason people are getting in the paths of more avalanches. And many snowmobilers are caught “high-marking” - taking their machines as high as possible up an open slope.
Helicopters also ferry skiers and snowboarders to more and more remote sites - and more avalanche-prone sites.
From 1985 to 1997, backcountry skiers accounted for the most avalanche fatalities, followed by climbers and snowmobilers. Kasun believes that will change because of the more powerful snow machines.
Ignorance also is a factor.
In general, skiers and snowmobilers should avoid north- and east-facing slopes or leeward slopes above 5,000 feet in elevation. They shouldn’t go out immediately after a storm, when the snowpack hasn’t had a chance to settle.
Snowmobilers tempted by an open slope should ask themselves whether they have to cross the slope, Kasun said. They should cross one at a time and they should ask themselves what will happen if one of them is caught by an avalanche.
Everyone needs a shovel, an emergency transceiver and probe poles. First aid training is essential. Once a person is buried, time is critical.
“After 15 minutes, a person’s chances of surviving drop dramatically,” Kasun said. “After 30 minutes, it’s almost zero.”
Six Spokane area skiers were caught by an avalanche near Moon Pass on Dec. 14. The 800-foot long, 150-foot wide avalanche carried two skiers away.
One of the skiers was able to escape. The other was carried the entire distance, caught a tree and managed to keep only his head out of the snow, Kasun said.
He suffered some knee injuries.
Kasun will help teach two free avalanche courses this month in Coeur d’Alene. A beginner course will be held Jan. 14 from 6 to 10 p.m. at North Idaho College’s Boswell Hall.
An advanced class will be held Jan. 21 from 6 to 10 p.m. at Boswell Hall.
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