Unstable snowpack, new storms raise fears of more avalanche deaths

Worried that storms blowing into the region could dump more than four feet of new snow onto an already unstable snowpack in the Cascades and Olympics through Friday, Jan. 2, authorities are warning those heading into the backcountry of some of the worst avalanche conditions in decades.

"If you make a mistake, you're going to die. It's that simple," said Michael Jackson, executive director of the Bellingham-based Alpine Safety Awareness Program.

"It's not time to trifle with the snowpack. It's not time to take risks," echoed Mark Moore, director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

Strong winds could add to the danger. Avalanches have caused 11 fatalities in the U.S. and eight in Canada since Dec. 14, officials said.

The eight deaths in Canada occurred Sunday, Dec. 28, when a group of snowmobilers were hit in back-to-back avalanches in the backcountry near Fernie in British Columbia. That same day another snowmobile rider was killed in an avalanche near Harts Pass in Okanogan County in Washington state.

As Moore explained it, the cold temperatures and shallow snowpack that existed earlier in the month re-sulted in a recrystalization within the snowpack, and those new crystals are weakly bonded."We have a very weak snowpack close to the ground," Moore said.

Add significant snowfall to that — a process Moore compared to throwing a growing brick on top of po-tato chips — and you've got some of the most unstable avalanche conditions he's seen in the Northwest in 20 years.The conditions are now common in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado to Montana and likely across southern B.C. and southern Alberta, Moore said.

Although warmer temperatures have helped stabilize the snowpack in some areas in recent days, officials are worried about the potential for large, destructive avalanches.

In the Cascades and Olympics, avalanche danger increases substantially on Thursday, Jan. 1, going from high to extreme above 4,000 feet and high below that level, according to the center's avalanche forecast.

"We're not trying to scare people out of the mountains. We're trying to educate them," Moore said.

Authorities also are warning people about high winds and that the significant snowfall could cause tree wells, which are holes that form around the base of trees. Skiers or snowboarders who fall head-first into them can suffocate if they can't get themselves out.

Gwyn Howat, one of the operations managers for Mt. Baker Ski Area, said skiers and snowboarders shouldn't venture out alone.

"It's a good idea to ride with a partner all the time, but especially if you're off the groomed runs," Howat said.

Jackson and others are warning people to use common sense as they head into the holiday weekend.

Be cautious inside ski areas and obey signs that tell you a run is off limits, they said, and if you must go into the backcountry, curb risky behavior.

"The mountains, including the ski area, belong to nature first. We are all visitors there and with that comes not only a personal responsibility but also a general sense of respect for the forces of nature," Howat said. "It's no Disneyland, and it's not the mall."

Reach Kie Relyea at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2234.