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Sports >  Outdoors

Avalanches have killed 15 people so far in February, regional experts see spike in backcountry use

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 10, 2021

Lake Pend Oreille is seen in January midway up Scotchman Peak in North Idaho.  (By Eli Francovich)
Lake Pend Oreille is seen in January midway up Scotchman Peak in North Idaho. (By Eli Francovich)

Avalanches nationwide have killed 15 people in February, including Steve Houle, a Washington State Patrol trooper from Cle Elum.

Houle’s body was found Monday night, according to WSP’s Twitter account.

On Saturday, eight backcountry skiers were caught and four were killed in an avalanche in Utah. That same day, a snowmobiler in Montana was caught and killed as well.

That’s the most recreation-related avalanche deaths in the past 100 years, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Some experts believe that’s due, at least partially, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The snowpack is the first-order reason – people are dying because it is very dangerous,” Simon Trautman, an avalanche specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center, told the New York Times. “The question is the second-order or third-order effect. I don’t know, but what I do know is that there are more people out there this year because of COVID. There’s just no doubt about it.”

As the Times’ article notes, it’s also due to an unusual snowpack. In many places, including in North Idaho and Washington’s Cascade range, early snow followed by a relative drought of snow, created a weak layer of surface hoar. Recent storms throughout the west have deposited new heavy snow on that buried weak layer. That’s known as a persistent weak layer and makes predicting when or where an avalanche occurs harder than normal.

On Sunday, The Spokesman-Review ran a story about the tricky and dangerous avalanche conditions in the region.

Forecasters urged backcountry users to check local avalanche conditions and recreate cautiously, noting that there had been several close calls.

Regional land managers and avalanche forecasters have seen an increase in backcountry usage, although quantifying exactly how many more people is tricky.

The Colville National Forest has seen increased use, although there have been no reports of avalanches, said Starr Farrell, a spokesperson for the Colville National Forest.

“Tonasket Ranger District is definitely seeing the greatest impacts since they are closer to the mountains,” Farrell wrote in an email. “The cross country and snowmobile areas have seen at least three times the visitation on the weekend versus last year. Weekday use has increased, but not to the same extent.”

Meanwhile, the Three Rivers, Republic and Newport-Sullivan Lake Ranger Districts have seen an increase in visitation compared to previous years.

“The focus has been on teaching people to not walk on tracks or groomed areas,” Farrell said. “We are seeing a lot more dogs visiting the forest, so that has been a teachable opportunity.”

The story is similar in the Panhandle National Forest in Idaho, according to Melissa Hendrickson, a natural resource specialist and avalanche forecaster.

About 500 more people are following the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center’s social media account and about 400 more people have joined the Panhandle Backcountry website, which is run by two IPAC board members.

“We sold out all our avalanche safety classes in record time,” Hendrickson said in an email. “This is over a hundred people for both skiing and snowmobiling that are taking a Level 1 avalanche class. I know that stats are similar for the other local avalanche safety providers in this area.”

Meanwhile, trailheads in the Silver Valley have seen more use and snowmobile parking lots are at capacity on nice weekends with good snow, she said.

Parking lots at Lookout Pass, which offers some of the areas most accessible backcountry skiing, have been full or overflowing with people “parking across the highway bridge and onto the ramps, which is definitely a safety issue.” There have also been more RVs than normal, suggesting that many are traveling to ski in Idaho which has less restrictive COVID-19 protocols. That jam-packed parking situation has occurred every weekend since the ski resort opened.

Most concerning, though, have been reports of people trying to “hike” to remote and potentially dangerous areas, like Steven’s Peak.

“This is one of the most complex and dangerous avalanche terrain areas in our region and terrifies me when I see people headed in for a hike,” Hendrickson said.

There have been no deaths or serious injuries in Idaho.

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