Heavy, wet snow piled on top of light, crystallized flakes has created high avalanche danger, regional avalanche experts say. And the threat will likely grow with more snow expected in the mountainous areas of Eastern Washington and North Idaho in coming days.
“Right now, we not only have a problem, we have a problem that’s not going to go away fast,” said Shep Snow, a Sandpoint snow expert who teaches avalanche awareness. “Every time we have a problem last more than two weeks, people start dying. People are not accustomed to a problem that has staying power. This one’s going to stay awhile.”
The problem is playing out from Utah to Wyoming to the Canadian border, Snow said. Forecasters throughout the West and into southern British Columbia are warning of the danger.
Already this season, three skiers have died in avalanches in-bounds at three ski areas – Squaw Valley in California, Snowbird in Utah and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, Snow said, adding that all three resorts have highly skilled ski patrols. In addition, eight snowmobilers died Sunday in a wave of avalanches south of Fernie, B.C.
Backcountry travel is not recommended, officials say, adding that people traveling through mountain passes should be on high alert.
“It’s really, really bad right now because of the weight of the snow and the water content,” said Chic Burge, of Coeur d’Alene, an avid backcountry skier who has taught avalanche awareness classes. “The first 3 feet of snow was extremely light. Now it’s heavy and it’s mashing down the snow. When it does that, it causes a compact layer that’s very fragile and can slide easily.”
Mountain slopes above 5,000 feet were upgraded from dangerous to extremely dangerous this morning along the entire Cascade mountain range, according to the Northwest Avalanche and Weather Center. Avalanche experts in Idaho say they anticipate the same level of danger in North Idaho mountain ranges, including the Selkirks, as heavier snow falls throughout the weekend.
People may have noticed during the first storm that the snow’s surface had a crystal-like reflection, said Terri Matthews, co-owner of Peak Adventures, a snowcat skiing and snowboarding operation and avalanche school. Those flat snowflakes do not bond easily to the snow that has fallen on top, she said.
Snow, the Sandpoint expert, compared the flakes in that lower layer to sugar or rock salt. The snowflakes have flat surfaces and sharp edges and can’t be packed into a snowball, he said. The snow crystals “don’t hang onto each other,” he said. “It’s like a house of cards that all the other snow is sitting on.”
Matthews said anything above the trees – mostly above 5,000 feet – is dangerous because the slope is more exposed and is less anchored to other objects, like trees. The risk also increases on slopes steeper than 35 degrees.
“Within 24 to 48 hours of a storm is typically the most dangerous time,” said Matthews, who has taught avalanche awareness classes for 16 years.
However, Snow warns that the unstable snow will remain unless it runs out in an avalanche or the weather warms significantly. And backcountry enthusiasts need to remember that the temperature drops 3 ½ degrees every 1,000 feet of elevation. So if it’s 34 degrees in downtown Spokane or Coeur d’Alene, the temperature in the mountains is below freezing, he said.
“This is a year to be careful. I wouldn’t be above 5,000 feet in exposed terrain for anything. Go watch a football game. There’s a lot of winter,” Snow said. “The way it’s set up is not something that’s going to go away easily. That’s what’s most troubling to me.”
For people who choose to go into the backcountry despite the warnings, Burge says: “Equipment and experience are the two things that are absolutely necessary. Equipment is a shovel, a probe and an avalanche beacon, and experience in how to use them.”
Knowing what to wear and proper layering methods is also critical. “Never wear cotton. It holds the cold against the body,” Burge said. “Cotton kills” is what he tells his classes.
But “there are so many fragile (snow) layers that going into backcountry right now is not worth it,” he said. “Wait until mid-January or early February.”