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Avalanche kills Bellingham man near Mt. Baker Ski Area

A helicopter from King County Air Support gets ready to launch Monday, Jan. 25 to assist in the search for a person who died in an avalanche near Mt. Baker Ski Area on Sunday.
A helicopter from King County Air Support gets ready to launch Monday, Jan. 25 to assist in the search for a person who died in an avalanche near Mt. Baker Ski Area on Sunday. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A Bellingham skier’s body was recovered Monday afternoon, Jan. 25, a day after he died in an avalanche on Mount Herman, near the Mt. Baker Ski Area.

On Sunday afternoon the man, identified as Mark Panthen, 36, and a friend had been skiing at the 4,200-foot level on the north slope of Herman, a popular backcountry destination just north of Mount Baker.

Panthen called the ski area around 12:45 p.m. to report his friend had been hurt and needed help, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Ski patrol had a view of the skiers’ location on the north slope of Herman within five minutes, and in the quarter-hour that followed, they witnessed two separate avalanches.

A Whidbey Island Naval Air Station helicopter equipped with rescue gear was called in to help find the men. It arrived about 2:20 p.m. The crew found Panthen and confirmed he had died.

Then they found the other skier, who has not been identified by the sheriff’s office. He was alive but had suffered a head injury. He was airlifted to St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham. An update on his condition hasn’t been released.

On Monday afternoon, around 1 p.m., a helicopter from the King County Sheriff’s Office recovered Panthen’s body, said Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Details of the slide are still being investigated, but it appears that the two men were buried in a small slide when a larger slide was somehow triggered, said Benj Wadsworth, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center.

Ten people have died in avalanches across the West in the last 10 days, making this month the deadliest January for slides in nearly 20 years.

Witnesses told experts that the avalanche came down from above the victims.

Conditions were actually worse in the Cascade mountains last week after rain falling on top of the snowpack triggered a lot of avalanches and flushed out a lot weak snow. Since then, however, Wadsworth said the top of the snowpack got crusty as temperatures dropped and then several inches of snow fell on top of that. He said it’s possible that crusty layer could have given out and caused the fatal slide.

The avalanche danger in the region was considered to be moderate, or a 2, on a scale of 1 to 5, according to the Northwest Avalanche Center.

I think it was a pretty frantic situation. There was a 911 call placed by some people in the party.

Scott Schell, program director for the Northwest Avalanche Center

However, Scott Schell, the center’s program director, said the danger is heightened by what experts term a “persistent slab” — a persistently weak layer that can fail at any time. The slab was created by layers of frost that formed on Jan. 3 and Jan. 11, and have since been buried by snowfall.

“It adds a whole level of uncertainty,” he said.

The avalanche on Mount Herman occurred on the north-facing flank. Schell said the men likely would have parked at the ski area and then worked their way uphill to get to the area where the accident occurred, because it is not accessible from a ski lift.

It was not known if they were carrying transponders, devices that signal a person’s location in the event of an avalanche.

“I think it was a pretty frantic situation,” he said. “There was a 911 call placed by some people in the party.”

Ten people have died in avalanches across the West in the last 10 days, making this month the deadliest January for slides in nearly 20 years, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks slides across the country.

Elsewhere Sunday, two skiers died in Wyoming after being caught in a slide just outside the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in a popular place for out-of-bounds skiing. A third skier who was trapped survived.

In Montana on Saturday, one of three snowmobilers riding in the Whitefish Mountains near Olney was killed after being buried.

Corrected Tuesday, Feb. 2. Panthen, not his skiing partner, called 911 to report his friend had been hurt.

Associated Press and the Seattle Times contributed to this report.

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