SEATTLE – The Colchuck Peak avalanche that killed three climbers last month was “relatively small,” the Northwest Avalanche Center found in its final accident report reviewing the incident.
But up there, on such steep terrain, even a small avalanche can be deadly.
On Feb. 19, a group of six climbers was climbing a steep, narrow gully – called a couloir – on the peak near Leavenworth, Washington, when an avalanche crashed down the mountainside.
Three climbers died of traumatic injuries: Seong Cho, 54, of Connecticut; Jeannie Lee, 60, of New York; and Yun Park, 66, of New Jersey.
The slide was the deadliest in the country this winter and Washington’s worst such avalanche in years.
Released on Thursday, the Northwest Avalanche Center report found the avalanche likely was 1.5 on the “destructive-size scale.” A D1 avalanche is considered “relatively harmless to people” and a D5 avalanche could “gouge” the landscape of a mountain, according to the Avalanche Review.
The terrain on Colchuck’s northeast couloir made the small avalanche deadly.
“This small avalanche resulted in a long and traumatic fall through exposed rocks, short cliffs, and narrow walled chokes,” the Avalanche Center report said. “These features can quickly magnify the consequences of even the smallest slide.”
Around 1:15 p.m., the lead climber planted his ice ax and the avalanche released, carrying four of them down about 1,000 feet.
Two others found safety under the shelter of a large rock.
The report found two people likely died immediately from the trauma and another died soon after. The fourth person caught in the slide suffered ankle and knee injuries.
One climber’s body has been recovered. As of late March, the two remaining deceased climbers were assumed to be buried by additional snowfall and subsequent avalanches near the couloir’s base. Recovery efforts will resume when conditions permit, the report said.
The report noted many of the climbers in the group of 11 were from other parts of the country and unfamiliar with the local mountains and snowpack. Those who went up Colchuck Peak didn’t have avalanche gear and had no avalanche training. While ascending, they didn’t use ropes. And they didn’t carry satellite communication devices, which could have sped up rescue efforts.
Avalanche rescue gear likely wouldn’t have saved lives in this incident, since they likely died from trauma rather than snow asphyxiation, the report noted. But avalanche transceivers could have allowed teammates and search and rescue team members to quickly locate victims.
The two climbers who had taken shelter had hiked farther up the mountain in search of their teammates, because they didn’t know right away the others had been carried down by the avalanche, the report said.
Three of the four victims caught and carried in the avalanche were not wearing helmets. The one surviving victim was wearing a helmet, the report said. It wasn’t clear if wearing helmets would have saved the victims, but helmets protect from traumatic brain injuries, the Avalanche Center noted.
The Avalanche Center advised skilled climbers to evaluate weather and snowpack conditions every day to determine potential hazards.